In February 2016, there were two momentous decisions issued affecting the nation’s juvenile justice system. First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that inmates serving mandatory life sentences for murders they committed when they were juveniles were entitled to either a new sentencing hearing or had to be given parole eligibility by state authorities. Second, President Obama issued an executive order that banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system.
Number of Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Juvenile Inmates Doubles
Both these decisions garnered significant media attention that overshadowed a report by the U.S. Justice Department that the number of allegations of sexual abuse of juveniles by guards and other staff personnel had doubled between 2007 and 2012. This report was based on data gleaned from juvenile facility administrators at some 1,400 state, local and private institutions. It involved nearly 9500 allegations with 45 percent of those allegations involving staff-on-inmate abuse, with 64 percent of the staffers being females abusing male inmates.
This report did not come as a surprise because the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics had conducted a series of anonymous surveys in preceding years which revealed that as many as 10 percent of juvenile inmates had been the victims of sexual abuse either by staff or fellow inmates.
Little Accountability for Abuse on Juveniles
Most of the sexual abusers of the young inmates are never brought to account. Internal and outside agency investigations seldom produce meaningful results. A 2016 Justice Department report found that even when an internal investigation determined a staffer had sexually abused a juvenile inmate, the worst punishment he or she faced was job termination. Only 36 percent of these staffers who actually abused the inmates were reported to law enforcement authorities for possible criminal charges with only 16 percent of them actually being charged. Worse yet, 20 percent actually managed to keep their jobs.
Texas once again finds itself in the outer walls of this political hurricane.
Governor Dispatches Texas Rangers to Investigate
In what the Houston Chronicle called a “surprise move,” Gov. Greg Abbott recently “dispatched” the Texas Rangers to the state’s five juvenile facilities to conduct a “detailed investigation” into allegations of sexual misconduct between staff and inmates and possible sexual assaults on inmates. Abbott’s order came on the heels of one guard at the Gainesville State School being convicted of having sexual relationship with inmates and three others being fired for the same thing.
There are roughly 1,000 juvenile offenders in state run prisons, known as residential facilities, under the custody of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD).
Speaking for the department, Carolyn Beck, the agency’s director of external relations, was quoted by the Chronicle as saying: “Governor Abbott’s letter to Col. McCraw reflects a strong commitment to the safety and well-being of the youth in TJJD’s care. We welcome and share that commitment. Both the youth, and our dedicated staff members, deserve protections at every step. We appreciate added law enforcement support and involvement and look forward to working with the Rangers.”
Abuse of Incarcerated Juveniles Reprehensible
Gov. Abbott has called the allegations of sexual abuse of incarcerated juveniles “reprehensible.”
David Kelly, reports the Chronicle, is on his way out as executive director of TJJD, ostensibly into retirement. The retirement news came after Kelly’s stated the sexual abuse of juvenile inmates was caused by “staff shortages.” Lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee were not buying Kelly’s lame excuse. They demanded that the executive director take immediate action to curb the problem.
Abbott has named Camille Cain, his current criminal justice director, to take over the TJJD once Kelly is out the door. The Chronicle reports that this move is seen as a prelude to major changes within the TJJD.
Sexual abuse by staff upon inmates in either juvenile or adult penal facilities occurs because top level security personnel in those facilities permit an unacceptable level of familiarity.
Forced or voluntary sexual activity between staff and inmate does not exist in a silent vacuum. It is known at both the inmate and staff level. It becomes easier to accept than address when official corruption seeps in and ultimately saturates the penal facility’s entire operations. Countless media reports over the last decade have clearly indicated that there is a major problem of official corruption in both the state’s adult and juvenile prison facilities in this state.
Prison Reform Advocates Applaud Governor’s Action
Houston Democratic lawmaker John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and who is a long time prison reform advocate, applauded Abbott’s latest foray into the TJJD operations. Whitmire, who has continuously blasted the TJJD for its tolerance of a culture of violence and inadequate supervision, was quoted by the Chronicle as saying in response to Abbott’s decision:
“It’s exactly the type of intervention we need to get control of these [juvenile] facilities. They are being run by the bullies and gangs, and the [honest] employees are working in an environment of fear.”
There is no doubt that Texas, like most other states, has seen an increasing population of more violent, dangerous juvenile inmates capable of encouraging, even coercing sexual activity within the inmate community and among the staff supervising the inmates. The issue of control, we believe, must be addressed before meaningful reforms can be effective.
Drastic Reduction in Use of Incarceration of Juveniles Needed
Mike Ward, the author of the Chronicle report, made this observation about possible reforms:
“As a result of the continuing problems, four Texas civil rights and youth-justice reform groups called in late November for state officials to close all remaining juvenile-justice lockups and replace them with community-based treatment and rehabilitation centers – a plan that was recommended in 2007 but never fully implemented, partly because of the cost and partly because of political opposition to job losses in the rural areas where the lockups are located.”
Most Juveniles Need Community Based Programs, Not Jail
Penal rehabilitation, and related criminal justice reforms, cannot exist, much less survive over the long haul, without strong, effective inmate supervision controls. Aggressive, dangerous, even violent, juvenile offender are responding to a permissive security environment within the juvenile facilities. These inmates are in a minority of the ranks of incarcerated juveniles. While most juvenile inmates would respond exceedingly well to a community-based approach with more rehabilitation opportunities, there are some who are not receptive to such open supervision and would pose significant risks to the community. These juveniles must be housed in safe facilities and offered progressive rehabilitation programs with the end goal being successful reintegration into the community.
Violent Crimes Rate of Crime Committed by Juveniles Decreasing
The encouraging signal is that the number of violent juvenile offenders has steadily decreased in recent years, reaching a 30-year low by 2014. Melissa Sickmund, Director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, credits community-based approaches to juvenile justice as a significant reason for the decline of violent offenders. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: the violent crime rate among juvenile offenders has steadily decreased in this country since 2006.
It seems to us that the Abbott administration should regain control of the TJJD. Once control is firmly established, then a mature, steady assessment of the 1,000 incarcerated juveniles should be undertaken with an eye toward moving them into community-based programs. The new TJJD director should have a strong task force of juvenile justice professionals identifying which community-based program is appropriate for certain types of offenders.
Those 1,000 incarcerated juveniles who remain too dangerous for community placement, based on offense of conviction or conduct while institutionalized, must be housed in a safe and secure facility and provided meaningful educational and vocational training programs. They should not be left to the mercy of simple incarceration, which is just as destructive to the immature brain as lax incarceration.
The Texas Rangers can regain control of the state’s five juvenile facilities, but it will be left up to the Governor and a Republican-controlled legislature to accept the responsibility of creating and implementing meaningful community-based juvenile justice reforms. We shall see if the paid lobbyist of the prison industrial complex are more important to politicians than the safety and future of our children.