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LBJ School Releases Report on Conditions for Certified Juveniles in Texas County Jails

LBJ School Senior Lecturer Michele Deitch has released a new report titled “Conditions for Certified Juveniles in Texas County Jails,” the second in her series on juveniles in the adult criminal justice system in Texas.

The research for this report was done in conjuction with an LBJ School course on juvenile justice and policy taught by Deitch and was coauthored by two University of Texas at Austin graduate students – Anna Lipton Galbraith, a master of public affairs student at the LBJ School, and Jordan Pollock, a student at the UT School of Law.

This report provides a comprehensive picture of the conditions for certified juveniles awaiting trial in adult county jails 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.

Up 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 youth could be housed with age-appropriate peers, participate in educational classes, and receive necessary services.

“These youth 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 reenter 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 policy makers, state and county agencies, and advocacy groups in future discussions about the most appropriate way to manage the confinement of certified juveniles.

Major survey findings include:

  • Jails are forced to choose between housing a juvenile in isolation or commingling him with adult offenders, putting either the youth's mental health or his physical safety at risk.
  • Most jails keep youth in isolation, with less than 1 hour a day of out-of-cell time, for average periods of 6 months up to a year or more.
  • Some jails allow youth to be housed with adult offenders.
  • Certified youth in adult county jails have extremely limited access to educational classes, services, or programs, which impairs their ability to reintegrate after they are released.
  • This lack of educational classes for certified juveniles in county jails appears to be in violation of state and federal laws.
  • Housing these youth is a significant burden on county jails in terms of staff time and financial resources, and the jail staff believe they should be held in more appropriate juvenile settings.
  • There are no standards governing the confinement of juveniles in adult jails.
  • The majority of counties that have historically certified juveniles have juvenile detention facilities in their county, where youth could be housed if the county’s juvenile board established a policy allowing this practice.
  • There are relatively few youth 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 youth to be held in the juvenile facilities instead of the jail.

This 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 to the population of determinate sentence juveniles who are retained in the juvenile justice system. The earlier report also compares the significant differences in programming and services for the two populations of youthful offenders—those who get sent to adult prisons after conviction, and those who receive placements in the juvenile system.

The previous report also examines the risks of confining youth in adult prisons and jails. National research shows that housing juveniles in adult prisons and jails compromises both public safety and the personal safety of the youth. Juveniles housed in adult prisons and jails face vastly higher risks of suicide, sexual assault, physical assault, and mental illness, and they have been shown to have a 100% higher risk of violent recidivism.

A new opinion issued by the Texas Attorney General this week will make it difficult for jails to continue the practice of housing certified youth with adult offenders, a practice criticized by the report. The opinion says that there must be strict “sight and sound separation” of juvenile and adult offenders.

“This will go a long way towards protecting the physical safety of juveniles in county jails,” said Deitch.

However, she expressed concern that the opinion would also result in an increase in the isolation experienced by the youth in these facilities.

“In most cases, it would be impossible for these juveniles to participate in any classes or programs, since they would come into contact with adults.”

Additionally, she observed that the jails would find the task of holding these youth even more burdensome given this new requirement.

“Most adult jails are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to figuring out how to handle these youth,” said Deitch. “The reality is that these youth need to be in more appropriate juvenile settings.”