Commentary: Why Texas should close its last five juvenile lockup sites

The Gainesville State School, a juvenile facility in a rural area 75 miles north of Dallas, is in crisis. Two personnel have been accused of physical violence against youth. Youth have reported that staff members paid them in drugs and money to attack other youth. At least four former staff members are facing prison time in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. A female staff member is allegedly pregnant with a youthful offender’s child. And, in the span of one year, 160 employees at the facility have either quit or were fired.

This latest scandal has demonstrated, once again, how ineffective youth prison facilities are in keeping children safe and reducing crime. Unfortunately, reports of abusive conditions in Gainesville are not new.

A report from the early 1940s, when Gainesville was a girls’ training school, described horrible living conditions – including extended periods of solitary confinement in tiny jail cells without access to bathrooms. Girls were punished by having their heads shaved and subsisting on a diet of only bread and water. In 1948, a state representative found girls at Gainesville “chained around the ankles with large log chains.”

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In the 1970s, Gainesville and other facilities became the subject of a lawsuit regarding children being committed without a hearing as well as the continued issues regarding the conditions of confinement. Most recently, in 2007, staff at Gainesville were found to have sexually abused 13 boys.

In response, Texas implemented significant changes to reduce the number of youth held in state-run facilities. The state prohibited youth who committed misdemeanors from being confined in state-run secure juvenile facilities, established a new general treatment program and formed a panel to ensure juveniles were not being held longer than was beneficial.

As a result of these reform efforts, the number of secure facilities statewide fell from 12 to five, and the number of youths in custody dropped from around 4,300 in 2007 to approximately 1,000 in 2015.

These numbers indicate that reform has achieved partial success. However, the most recent Gainesville episodes show that youth left in those few remaining large facilities are still at risk. Gainesville remains physically isolated from oversight, struggling to find and retain qualified staff. Sen. John Whitmire has called the remaining five facilities, including Gainesville, a “powder keg.” Advocates are calling for the remaining facilities in Texas to be closed and replaced by community-based diversion programs.

Sadly, it is often scandal that prompts change, not just in Texas, but beyond. It is scandal that startles the public awake; it is scandal that creates incentives for the government to change harmful, disastrous systems.

The “kids for cash” scandal in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania is a perfect example. From 2000 to 2008, the law was essentially irrelevant in Luzerne County. Each juvenile proceeding took two minutes, lawyers were not allowed to speak and detention centers were told at the beginning of the day how many youths to expect (well before innocence or guilt had been determined). Worst of all, two judges were receiving kickbacks for sending children to detention facilities, incentivizing the locking up of youth.

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The scandal eventually came to light, leading to widespread reforms. Both judges were sentenced to federal prison sentences. Luzerne youth now receive counsel, are only shackled in extreme circumstances and are informed of their appellate rights.

What is happening at Gainesville is a disaster and a tragedy, but it is also a chance to reexamine and revitalize Texas’ juvenile justice system. Texas remains an outlier in prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults. Raising the age to 18 would lower the number of juveniles in state facilities like Gainesville and lower youth crime rates overall. Housing youth in smaller, urban facilities closer to their homes would allow for greater access to treatment and mental health services.

Texas is in a state of crisis, but with this scandal comes the hope for reform.

Bala is a criminal justice senior fellow at the R Street Institute.

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