KCBD Investigates: Changes coming to troubled Texas Juvenile Justice Department

Published: Nov. 10, 2022 at 9:22 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 10, 2022 at 10:15 PM CST
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - State lawmakers agree that changes must be made to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

On Thursday, the state legislature’s Sunset Advisory Commission approved recommendations for the agency in turmoil.

The Sunset staff report begins, “The Texas Juvenile Justice Department was born out of scandal, and a decade later, it still struggles to avoid the spotlight.”

PREVIOUS STORY: Texas Juvenile Justice Department reports 71% turnover rate putting strain on county resources

Staff reported the agency has a 71% turnover rate among juvenile correctional officers.

Despite a recent pay raise, some lawmakers, like Senator Nathan Johnson, believe another increase would help.

“We are still six or 7,000, which is around 18%, under the market rate for a juvenile justice correctional officer. The long-term viability of this agency I think is in jeopardy,” he said.

The report found that critical staffing levels put both youth and employees in danger.

According to data from the State Office of Risk Management, TJJD has had the highest injury frequency rate among all reporting entities over the last decade.

Thursday’s approved recommendations will require TJJD to work with that office to develop strategies to address and minimize employee injuries.

Still, Senator Charles Perry said the juvenile justice system may not be equipped to handle some juvenile offenders.

“We may not have the facility or the path to deal with that child today and we may have to get creative on how we take the extremes from the system to handle the kids that have made really poor decisions. There are some hardened kids that we need to look at in the eye and say where do we go from here, and today, I don’t think we have truly addressed that,” Perry said.

Sunset staff found lockdowns likely contributed to a 35% increase in suicide assessments and a 19% increase in aggressive behaviors during the fall of 2021. TJJD implemented those lockdowns because it did not have enough staff to monitor the juveniles, so they remained in their cells, in isolation.

The probe discovered one juvenile tied a ligature around his neck to ensure staff performing routine door checks would pull him out of isolation before he was critically injured.

On Thursday, the commissioners agreed that the legislature should consider appropriating additional funding to TJJD to build two new state-secure facilities, with the opportunity for either or both to specialize in specific treatments like crisis stabilization and mental health care.

TJJD’s Interim Director, Shandra Carter, declined an interview but sent us a statement that reads in part, ”We are grateful for the Commission’s support for funding two smaller state facilities in urban areas.”

Carter agreed with the commission’s key recommendations and said while it will take time to implement them, the agency is already at work developing those plans.