Staffing shortage has Texas facing juvenile justice crisis
For more than a decade, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has been slammed for reports of repeated sexual and physical abuse, as well as a lack of control. Photo by Texas Tribune.

Staffing shortages at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) have been found to had detrimental effects on the mental health and physical well-being of youth held in their its facilities.

Article written by Alaina Bookman

Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest justice center, filed a complaint urging the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the rights violations of youth within the TJJD and its five facilities across the state on Oct. 21,in October 2020.

After the TJJD conducted its Sunset review in May 2022, where an agency under review can be abolished by the state legislature if it is found to be inadequate, it is now experiencing the same problems its staff claimed it would overcome.

“Young people who are in this are being traumatized right now and their mental health is suffering right now and we already know that a lot of them have high or intense mental health needs,” said Brett Merfish, an attorney and director of youth justice with Texas Appleseed.

The staffing shortage has resulted in inadequate mental health and educational services causing higher rates of suicidal behavior as the youth are reportedly isolated for as long as 22 hours each day. Over 600 youths are in the state care of TJJD as further intake has been paused.

“I do think that these are the most vulnerable youth and a lot of times these youth are also in our foster care system. And so they are kind of, you know, unfortunately, the forgotten children,” Merfish said.

Texas Appleseed is advocating for the closure of TJJD secure facilities after evidence of sexual assault, excessive use of force and the overuse of restraints were reported.

Merfish said these continual and longstanding issues are systemic.

“Black and Brown youth are profiled, probably by school resource officers and by police officers and racial biases are within all of our systems in the United States,” Merfish said. “More kids who are Black and Brown are ending up in our juvenile justice system.”

Merfish said Texas Appleseed is working toward systemic changes in the juvenile justice system through preventative measures and shifting rehabilitation services to a county level to better serve the youth within their own communities.

“They do things that are stupid and that are law-breaking, but that doesn’t mean that they’re destined to be lifelong, repeat offenders. It doesn’t mean that they need to be institutionalized,” Merfish said. “We have to continue to ensure that we humanize them.”