Ted McLaughlin : The Death of Juvenile Justice in Texas

Photo by Robert Essel / Corbis.

It’s a crime:
The death of juvenile justice in Texas

By Ted McLaughlin / The Rag Blog / June 5, 2011

Juvenile Justice in the state of Texas has been on a wild ride for the last few years. It all started when some abuse was discovered in a West Texas state juvenile facility. The newspapers and other media jumped on it and made it sound as though abuse was rampant throughout the system administered by the Texas Youth Commission (TYC).

This was not true, but a good story is better than the truth for many.

Was there abuse at that facility? Yes. But what many failed to report was that several people at that facility reported the abuse and tried to get it stopped. The ball was dropped by the agency’s leadership in Austin, who did not immediately deal with the situation. If they had dealt with it promptly (as previous administrations had done when abuse was uncovered), the current mess might have been avoided. But they didn’t, and the story quickly spiraled out of control.

The Texas Youth Commission has never dealt with a large number of young people in the state. Only about one-half of 1% of juveniles in the state ever came in contact with TYC, and fewer than that were actually incarcerated by the state. At the time the scandal broke there were slightly more than 5,000 students incarcerated by the state (and a few thousand on parole). About half of these juveniles would eventually make their way into prison after becoming adults.

When you think about it that’s a pretty remarkable success record for TYC — considering these were the worst juveniles the state had (and churches, schools, probation, and drug and other treatment programs had not succeeded with them). But that was ignored in the rush to “fix” the system after the scandal broke.

In a way, the perfect storm was created by the convergence of several things — a storm that would result in the virtual destruction of the juvenile justice system.

First was the West Texas scandal. The abuse was not widespread, but media accounts made it seem like it was. Second was the desire of some on the left to reform the system. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. All justice systems (both juvenile and adult) should be continually examined for ways to improve them.

But in portraying the juveniles as “helpless children,” these reformers ignored the fact that all of them were criminals who had committed serious felonies and posed a danger to their communities.

The third element was the huge budget problems in Texas. While the Republicans (who control the state government) might not agree with the reformers on a philosophical level, they saw the opportunity to save a lot of money by gutting a state agency (in the guise of “reforming” it).

These elements resulted in cutting the number of juveniles incarcerated by half. This was done by cutting the amount of time a juvenile was incarcerated (ignoring whether they were ready to be released or not) and closing down some facilities.

Just last Friday it was announced that an additional three facilities would soon be closed (and many parole offices would be closed). The justification for this was two-fold. Legislators said that juvenile crime was dropping (therefore fewer facilities were needed), and more juveniles would be dealt with on a county level instead of referring them to TYC.

Both of these are bogus arguments.

While it is true that juvenile crime has been falling by a small amount (single-digit percentages), the amount of bed space in the agency has been reduced by a huge percentage (at least 70%). The assumption is that the counties will now deal with most of these juveniles. The problem with that is that the counties were given very little more money (and the money for drug and other treatment facilities was actually reduced). Also ignored was the fact that the counties had already done everything they had the capacity to do before referring the juveniles to TYC.

So the counties have done what they can, and the state has very little capacity for housing the juveniles the counties can no longer control (which is resulting in sentences as short as 90 days — and 30 days for those referred by parole). It is ludicrous to think that a juvenile criminal can be rehabilitated in 90 days (after many local agencies failed to do it in a much longer period of time).

Now the legislators and reformers may think they have done something good by preventing the incarceration of these young criminals, but they haven’t. The police and courts still have to deal with them, and many of them cannot be left in the community (because it would endanger the community).

What is going to be done with them? The answer is obvious and is already starting to take place all over the state — they will be sent to an ADULT PRISON. They might not receive as much help there, but the community will be safer and they will be kept longer.

The truth is that the juvenile justice system in Texas has not been reformed — it has been destroyed. And juvenile justice in the state has been thrown back to the time when most serious juvenile criminals would be sent to a prison rather than a juvenile facility. This means that more juveniles will be abused and placed in danger, not less. And the counties should not be blamed for doing this, since it has been forced on them by the state legislature.

There will be talk of wonderful reform in the coming days. Don’t believe it. What we are really witnessing is the death of the juvenile justice system in Texas.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I have spent most of my working life in various forms of law enforcement — including 15 years in the Texas Youth Commission (eight years working in a correctional institution and seven years working in parole). I am currently retired.

[Ted McLaughlin also posts at jobsanger. Read more articles by Ted McLaughlin at The Rag Blog.]

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6 Responses to Ted McLaughlin : The Death of Juvenile Justice in Texas

  1. Jorge Antonio Renaud says:

    Catchy art and headlines don’t make for good journalism. Ted makes two outlandish and sadly wrong statements – that “these [juveniles] were the worst the state had” and “all of them were criminals who had committed serious felonies and posed a danger to their communities.” How he arrived at that conclusion is beyond me, unless he believes that all TYC committees deserve to be there because the current juvenile system has done a commendable job of identifying, arresting and fairly convicting juveniles. A recent study by Prof. Michele Deitch at the LBJ School shoots that down. (http://www.utexas.edu/lbj/sites/default/files/file/news/juvenilestexas–final.pdf)
    She finds that “The data dispels prevailing assumptions that juveniles transferred to adult court are more violent and more
    persistent in their criminal behavior than those retained in juvenile court. Indeed, the two groups look remarkably
    It’s articles such as this – poorly written, badly researched – that have ceded the intellectual high ground to the reactionary right. Shame on you, Ted.

  2. Jorge — You may have legitimate differences with Ted here. But how in the world — based on this article — do you come to your conclusion? Where on the reactionary right can we find ANY high ground?

  3. I said nothing about juveniles transferred to the adult system being more violent than those kept in the juvenile system. My point was that with the elimination of capacity in the juvenile system (which is resulting in ridiculously short sentences), many more juveniles are being referred to the adult system (whether they deserve to be there or not). And a “reform” that drives juveniles into the adult system is not truly an enlightened reform.
    While reformers may have initially had good intentions, the “reforms” that were finally initiated were done so because of financial considerations (budget-cutting), and not an effort to improve the treatment of juvenile criminals.
    And yes, they are criminals who have committed one or more serious felonies. Even then most counties have tried every program at their disposal to avoid state incarceration. But after the counties have exhausted all their options they must send them to the state – and if there is no room in the juvenile system then they will be sent to the adult system. And this will continue to happen until the juvenile system is truly reformed (and not just gutted as the current actions are doing).

  4. No, Ted, you did not say juveniles being sent to TDCJ were more violent; you said they were “worst the state had to offer.” So what makes them the worst? Why do you assume that TYC transfers the “worst”, and how is that defined?
    Secondly, space limitations do not result in “ridiculously short sentences.” Juveniles are either certified as adults and sent on to TDCJ or given determinate sentencing, which allows judges in the juvenile court system to sentence kids to a length of time and then review that sentence and order that kid’s release if the judge decides sufficient progress has been made.
    Also, your comment that “the counties have tried every program at their disposal to avoid state incarceration” is belied by the fact that, according to TYC statistics, from FY 2005-2009, 24& – almost a quarter – of all juveniles referred to TYC via determinate sentencing from Texas counties had no prior referral to juvenile court; and 18 & had just one. Hardly the actions of counties exhausting all their options.
    I do not take issue with your contention that space limitations in TYC are resulting in kids going to TDCJ, although you provide no facts to prove that; I take moral issue with your contention that 1) these kids deserve to be in TYC in the first place because they are criminals who have committed serious felonies, and 2) factual issue with your contention that the counties have done all they can until, exhausted by dealing with these “criminals,” are reluctantly forced to send them to TYC.
    Define “worst,” Ted. Murderers? Rapists? Pedophiles? What percentages of them go on to TDCJ? What counties offer which programs? Let’s see some data, because the assumption that these kids deserve arrest, indictment and conviction after all the rehab the poor counties have done for them is at the root of the problem, not media coverage of a very real scandal and the ensuing changes.

  5. You seem to think there are a lot of determinate sentences. There are not! Almost all the juveniles sent to TYC are committed for an indeterminate sentence (and that sentence is getting very short due to space considerations). The few that get determinate sentences have committed extremely serious crimes (like murder).

    And I don’t understand how you can argue with my contention that these are the worst kids the state has to offer. They have ALL committed felonies (since state law will not allow a juvenile not convicted of a felony to be committed to TYC). I’d like to know who you think are worse kids.

    And if you think the counties are doing such a poor job, then why are you in favor of forcing them to keep these kids. I don’t know what you do for a living, but as a parole officer I regularly read the juvenile files, and almost all had a long history in the counties where drug programs, foster homes, boot camps, psychological counseling, special schools, and many other things were tried before they finally sent a juvenile to the state. The counties do a good job, but there is a limit to what they can do, and some kids must be sent on to a more secure facility. That’s just a fact, whether you like it or not.

    There was a scandal at West Texas (and some of the staff there tried to report it — as they should have), but Austin dropped the ball. This does not mean that abuse was rampant throughout TYC. And it certainly shouldn’t have been used as an excuse to gut the system.

    And even though I recently retired, I still know a lot of people in the justice system. They are getting pretty disgusted with the state’s failure to deal with these young criminals, and they’re starting to send more of them to adult prison. If that’s what you wanted, then the “reform” is working for you.

    You ask what kind of crimes these juveniles commit (and you listed a range of serious crimes). My answer is that juveniles commit all of the crimes you named and more. Any crime that an adult can commit can be committed by a juvenile — and is.

    And finally, what exactly is your moral issue with incarcerating criminals who have committed felonies. What would you do with them (especially since many efforts have been tried already before they are incarcerated)? Would you just let them run loose in the community and continue committing serious crimes?

  6. Just to make one last point about data versus opinion.
    As a former parole officer, you should have access to the data provided by the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission. In 2010, that Commission provided statistics for the Fiscal Years 2005-2009. Of all the kids sent the TYC as a result of determinate sentencing during that period, only 4.8 percent were sent as a result of Homicide.
    So, your comment that, “The few that get determinate sentences have committed extremely serious crimes (like murder),” doesn’t hold water.
    The same source provides the numbers of determinate sentences handed out by counties. The top ten counties sentenced 410 juveniles to TYC with determinate sentences from 2006-2009.
    Thus, neither of your two allegations based on statistics are true. Again, I ask; where are your sources? Saying that you read reports is not the same as providing numbers from, say, Bexar County showing that a set number of kids sent to TYC had so many felonies, so many referrals to juvenile court, so many assignments to a rehab center, so many referrals to boot camp.
    I’m a journalist. I’m a counselor. I know the difference between opinions and facts based on statistics. Your opinion matters as much as mine. However, you keep making allegations that refer to numbers, yet you provide no data to back up anything you say, and in fact the very agencies responsiuble for these kids provide data that refutes your allegations – that few kids received determinate sentencing; that those receiving determinate sentences are there for murder – only 4.8 percent; etc.
    You’re right; I don’t think these are the “worst” kids the state has to offer. These are the kids the counties have found fit to identify, arrest, convict and then sentence, many times upon their first brush with the law. Referring one last time to statistics provided by the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, from 2005-2009, 80 percent of the juveniles in TYC were black and Hispanic, yet those two groups comprised only 57 percent of the Texas juvenile population. So, unless you believe there is an inherent disposition toward criminality in darker-skinned individuals, one has to assume that the racism and classicism that has so permeated the adult criminal justice system also results in young minorities being arrested, convicted and sentenced at disproportionate rates.
    Again – these are not the worst kids in the state. These are the kids deemed the worst by a system infected with racism and classicism, and it is a system that you seem to totally agree with.

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