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Texas Lawmakers Vote to Build New Youth Prisons, Ship Some Teens to Adult Lockups

by Chuck Sharman

In a surprising shift, the Texas Legislature approved construction of new state-run prisons for youth and transferring some teenagers from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) to the more punitive adult prison system. The passage of SB 1727 on May 29, 2023, marked a departure from the state’s previous effort to reduce its number of incarcerated children and focus on local rehabilitation efforts.

The legislation includes a provision requiring transfer of certain teenagers from TJJD to adult prisons, a practice that has been increasing at the agency’s discretion.

The new state budget also allocates $200 million for construction of two or three additional state-run youth prisons, despite concerns about staffing shortages and ongoing problems in TJJD’s current facilities.

Over the past decade, Texas had been moving away from imprisoning children, closing eight youth prisons and significantly reducing the incarcerated youth population from about 5,000 to fewer than 600. However, the youth still sent to TJJD often present complex challenges due to violent behavior or severe mental health issues.

While the bill requires the agency to utilize local resources to keep children closer to home, lawmakers pushed for new facilities after projecting an increase in the number of teenagers entering the TJJD system. Social justice groups criticized the plans, fearing additional prisons will exacerbate staffing shortages and replicate other problems faced by current facilities, which have been plagued by abuse scandals.

The lack of specialization in the legislation is another concern. While lawmakers have emphasized the benefits of smaller, specialized facilities, the legislation stipulates only that each prison will have a minimum of 200 beds, without specifying their purpose. So the new prisons may simply perpetuate existing issues without addressing the underlying problems. The availability of more beds will also almost certainly lead to increased incarceration rates, even for children better served by alternative approaches.

“The more beds that we have, the more people we’ll find to fill those beds,” worried state Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston).

The new provisions were included a bill re-authorizing TJJD. It will reshape the agency’s board and require more youth kept closer to their communities, through increased funding for local services and diversion programs.

The law also mandates transfers to adult prison for certain serious offenses committed by youth in TJJD custody. Youth justice advocates emphasize that the teens most likely to end up in adult prisons have experienced trauma and require a more therapeutic approach, rather than punitive measures.

The new state budget provides a significant boost to TJJD, enabling increased pay rates for juvenile prison guards in addition to funds for new facilities. However, specifics remain unclear regarding the size and nature of the new prisons. The legislation will become law unless vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) – which is exactly what social justice organizations and advocates are urging the governor to do.

Source: Texas Tribune


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