Senator blasts Texas’ Juvenile Justice Department

CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A state senator called the Texas Juvenile Justice Department a broken agency on Thursday, while a separate committee considered no longer treating 17-year-olds as adults in criminal cases.

Houston Democrat John Whitmire, chairman of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said the state agency is spending $129,000 a year per detainee, while having a 77 percent re-arrest rate and a 48 percent re-incarceration rate. Texas lawmakers have moved in recent years to shut down juvenile detention facilities and shift young offenders into community rehabilitation programs.

But Whitmire said 1,050 juveniles remain in the state system, which he complained also fails to sufficiently segregate violent from non-violent offenders, or 14-year-olds from 17-year-olds.

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“Juvenile judges have told me they’ve given up on this department,” Whitmire said. “They feel like they get better services for the youth in the communities they are coming from.”

The outgoing executive director of the agency, Mike Griffiths, said employees are improving the system but that they handle the toughest juvenile offenders under difficult circumstances.

“The majority of those youth have multiple convictions, most at the felony level, before they hit the system,” he said. “Our agency is not broken, our staff is not broken. We are in antiquated facilities … we shouldn’t be in.”

Griffiths spent only 18 months leading the agency, formerly known as the Texas Youth Commission. The state’s juvenile detention system has been plagued by scandals and problems, and lawmakers have tried to follow national trends of keeping young offenders out of detention facilities and with their families.

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Whitmire said the probation arm of the system appeared to be working well.

Earlier, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee heard testimony on raising the age at which a criminal suspect is considered an adult. Texas is among only 10 states that treat people younger than 18 as adults, and has treated 17-year-olds as adults since 1918.

Michele Dietch, a professor at the LBJ School for Public Affairs, said research has proven teenage brains are not fully developed and young offenders need special services not available in adult prisons.

“Teenagers struggle with poor decision-making and poor impulse control,” she told the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. “Youths’ characters and personalities are still developing.”

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She said other states that still treat juveniles as adults are changing their laws, and Texas is an outlier nationally and internationally. She noted that juveniles are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in adult prisons than juvenile justice facilities.

Judge Laura Parker, who oversees a juvenile court in San Antonio, said 80 percent of the cases she hears are misdemeanors. She supports changing the law.

“You have low-level offenders ending up in the adult system,” she said. “Adult probation is very, very difficult. … The adult probation system doesn’t hold their hand in the same way, it doesn’t include the family.”

No one testified in favor of maintaining the current law, but victims’ rights groups worry that teenagers who commit serious crimes might not face serious punishment.

Riley Shaw, an assistant district attorney who handles juvenile cases in Tarrant County, said he supports raising the age but said it would require an overhaul of all criminal justice laws, retraining probation officers, and more money for rehabilitation and probation programs.

“The problems I see are on the implementation side,” he said. “You need to take your time if you’re going to make this kind of change.”

The Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee will meet in the afternoon to study how the juvenile detention system is operating. Lawmakers recently moved to shut down most of the state’s juvenile detention centers, but the state is still struggling with how to deal with those suffering from severe behavioral problems.