Is Texas’ Juvenile Justice System Imploding?


To the outside world, it must look as though Texas’ juvenile justice system is imploding. Not only are media articles appearing on a regular basis about sexual and physical abuse of young people in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s secure facilities, we are also reading about overcrowding in Harris County’s juvenile detention facility, and kids being refused time outside at the Dallas County juvenile post-adjudication facility.

What should we make of this? How do all of these facilities interact and serve young people who encounter the juvenile justice system? What is the difference between a county detention facility and a TJJD facility? And why is this happening now — after Texas has made so much progress in reforming its juvenile justice system over the last 10 years? Here are answers to some of those questions:

What are the different types of facilities? All of the juvenile facilities that are the focus of the recent media articles are locked juvenile facilities, but they serve youth at different levels within Texas’ system. 

  • For example, children and youth in the Harris County detention facility are awaiting an adjudication, or trial, in their case – they have not yet been found “delinquent.”
  • The young people in the Dallas County facility – which is a “post-adjudication” facility – have been through a court process and are being held as part of their rehabilitation process. 
  • Young people in TJJD’s secure state-run facilities (there are five in total) have also been through a trial and “committed” or sentenced to time in a state secure facility, but these facilities are (at least in theory) supposed to be reserved for youth who have engaged in the most serious behavior. A court cannot send a young person to TJJD’s state-run facilities unless they have committed a felony.

What is causing the dysfunction within the system? While all of these facilities operate at different levels within the juvenile justice system, the problems being reported have a common theme:  harmful conditions for youth, in large part due to overcrowding and/or inadequate staffing. These problems are not unique to Texas, and underscore the critical importance of reserving secure facilities for only those youth who cannot safely remain in the community.

All of these juvenile secure facilities should be viewed as a “last resort,” regardless of where they fall within the juvenile system. Research has proven, over and again, that secure facilities are a poor setting for treatment and rehabilitation of youth, and should only be used when a youth poses a safety threat.  When they are used, facilities should be small and located near urban centers to ensure they are appropriately staffed with skilled treatment professionals.

What is next? Reforms must continue. Reforms that will ultimately help youth involve understanding the need to emphasize appropriately resourced community-based alternatives to facilities, regional planning that addresses gaps in services, and use of smaller facilities in better, more urban locations for youth who cannot be served in the community. In response to the 2007 allegations of sexual abuse of youth in state secure facilities, the state closed 10 facilities and increased resources for community-based alternatives, reducing reliance on an expensive system that was showing poor results. Texas simply needs to stay the course and develop next steps for a short- and long-term reform plan that builds on the successes we’ve already seen.

Stakeholders in Texas are coming together to do just that, giving us at Texas Appleseed a sense of optimism for the future. In keeping with this, Appleseed joined five other organizations in developing a set of recommendations that we think would put Texas on the right path.  We hope that these recommendations are just the first step in an ongoing partnership with policymakers and other stakeholders to ensuring reforms that are good for kids, good for community safety, and good for taxpayers. It’s time to close the door on what doesn’t work — and hasn’t worked for decades — and complete the work that research proves is best for youth and communities.