A new report on conditions facing juveniles being held in adult jails in Texas, released by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, reveals that county jails are being forced to choose between housing juveniles in isolation or commingling them with adult offenders, putting either the youths' mental health or physical safety at risk.
The report, principally authored by LBJ School Senior Lecturer Michele Deitch, also reveals that housing these youths in adult facilities places a significant burden on county jails in terms of staff time and financial resources. Additionally, many of these facilities lack educational classes for certified juveniles in county jails, which appears to be in violation of state and federal laws.
The report is titled "Conditions for Certified Juveniles in Texas County Jails" and is based on a survey of 41 jails across the state of Texas. Deitch worked with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a state agency responsible for oversight of county jails, to collect and analyze the data. The research for this report was also done in conjunction with a course on juvenile justice policy taught by Deitch and was co-authored by two University of Texas at Austin graduate students.
Additional major findings include:
- Most jails keep youths in isolation, with less than 1 hour a day of out-of-cell time, for average periods of 6 months to a year or more.
- Some jails allow youths to be housed with adult offenders, putting them at high risk for sexual assault.
- Juveniles in adult county jails have extremely limited access to educational classes, services or programs, which impairs their ability to reintegrate after they are released
- There are no standards governing the confinement of juveniles in adult jails.
- The majority of counties that have historically certified juveniles have juvenile detention where youths could be housed if the county's juvenile board has established a policy allowing this practice.
- There are relatively few youths confined in these adult county jails, a total of 34 at the time of this study. Most counties have no more than one certified juvenile in the jail, and even the largest counties have no more than a handful, making it feasible in most cases for these youths to be held in the juvenile facilities instead of the jail.
Until September 2011, juveniles certified as adults were required by state law to be held in adult county jails while awaiting trial. In 2011 the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 1209, which allows juvenile boards to create the option for a judge to send a certified youth to a county-run juvenile detention center instead of the adult jail. In the juvenile detention centers, unlike the county jails, these youths could be housed with age-appropriate peers, participate in educational classes and receive necessary services.
"These youths have not been convicted of a crime at this stage and are still presumed innocent," said Deitch. "If they are ultimately convicted, many of them will be released on probation after their time in the county jail. So the conditions they experience in the jail may well affect their ability to re-enter the community."
This report aims to help inform juvenile boards as they consider whether to create such an option under SB 1209 and to assist policymakers, state and county agencies, and advocacy groups in future discussions about the most appropriate way to manage the confinement of certified juveniles.
The report comes one year after Deitch released Juveniles in the Adult Criminal Justice System in Texas (LBJ School of Public Affairs, 2011), which examined data with respect to certified juveniles and compares them with the population of determinate sentence juveniles who are retained in the juvenile justice system.