Travis County and others across Texas would be allowed for the first time to open their own prisons for teenaged lawbreakers under legislation poised to gain fast approval in the Texas Senate.
Approved unanimously late Tuesday by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and designated for final approval by the whole Senate with just a consent vote, Senate Bill 511 allows counties to operate so-called “post-adjudication” lockups to house offenders who previously would have been sentenced to state lockups operated by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Travis County officials say they will open the first one, using current bunk space.
“This is an opportunity to serve kids locally to make a difference,” said Jeanne Meurer, a Travis County senior juvenile judge who endorsed the legislation authored by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “We want to step up and try to see if this works, and we believe that we can do it.”
Whitmire said officials in other urban areas, including Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, have expressed interest in doing the same thing.
If the shift from state-run institutions for juvenile offenders to local lockups is successful, it could further deplete the population of the state’s lockups — which has dropped from more than 4,000 youths six years ago to just over 1,100. Sweeping reforms have shifted youth corrections in Texas to local programs, and many have proven highly successful.
They are also far less costly. Whitmire said at a public hearing Tuesday that holding a youth in the state’s lockups costs $120,000 a year, while counties can hold a youth offender for just $60,000.
Though Senate approval is expected, the measure faces a less-certain future in the House. Advocacy groups who oppose the shift to more community-based corrections programs for youths warn of fewer specialized rehabilitation and treatment programs and of decreased parole oversight and monitoring.
Meurer and Whitmire said the county lockups will meet the same standards for specialty treatment and rehabilitation programs expected of state facilities.
Echoing sentiments of other advocates, Lauren Rose, with Texans Care for Children, said the local lockups should meet or exceed standards for the state facilities, and that protections in state law for youthful offenders in state-run lockups should also cover those in the local ones.
“Advocates have been pushing for years to move more kids into local programs — keep them local,” said Whitmire, an architect of the reforms that have done just that. “Now that we’re talking about taking the next step, there’s opposition. We’re sticking with the reform plan, and this is the next step. They’re getting what you’ve been asking for.”
Before the reforms began, following a sex abuse and cover-up scandal in state-run youth lockups in 2007, Travis County was sending about 120 youths a year to state lockups. Last year, Meurer said, the county sent less than a dozen.
Noting that the bill no longer requires a judge to sentence a youth to a state lockup, Meurer observed, “This bill simply allows me to do the same thing as before, just to do it locally.”
If the change becomes law and the local lockup opens, it would mark Travis County’s second such foray into state justice. In the early 1990s, Travis County successfully lobbied the Legislature to create the state jail system to rehabilitate low-level, nonviolent offenders. It ran a contract state jail in East Austin for several years until a scandal over illicit operations there involving convicts and guards moved the state to take over its operation.