The Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) has suspended intake due to staffing shortages and may need to release some of its youth, authorities said.
Interim Executive Director Shandra Carter wrote the TJJD is “hemorrhaging” staff, making conditions for the incarcerated juveniles unsafe, according to a letter sent to state officials at the end of last month.
“The ongoing, secure facility staffing issue will lead to an inability to even provide basic supervision for youth locked in their rooms,” Carter wrote in the letter, noting an alleged increase in suicidal behaviors.
In addition, it was reported that staffing shortages have led to unchecked gang activity.
TJJD will be implementing measures to relieve stress on the staff, including halting the facility’s Intensive Intervention Program (IIP), “a programmatic intervention that is intended to manage lower-level aggression and violence.”
Other steps being taken include moving youths to other facilities to consolidate staff, reviewing older incarcerated juveniles who are about to age out for early releases and considering TJJD and Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmates for parole eligibility.
Currently, nearly 600 detainees are housed in TJJD facilities, and 130 in county detention are waiting for beds to open.
According to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department agency, the redirection will have a “net-zero” impact, as the state funding was fungible and replaced by federal coronavirus relief. An Abbott spokesperson said the change “did not impact the agency’s operational budget in any way.”
Renae Eze, speaking for Abbott, said the governor is committed to supporting TJJD staff and youth. In addition, she said, “Under Interim Director Carter’s leadership, TJJD is implementing permanent raises to address the urgent issue of understaffing at facilities and ensure they remain secure and safe.”
Questions have been raised about the TJJD’s commitment to the safety of the minors under its care.
The Dallas Express previously reported that the federal Department of Justice announced in October 2021 that it was investigating “whether Texas provides children confined in the facilities reasonable protection from physical and sexual abuse by staff and other residents.”
It was also looking into claims of “excessive use of chemical restraints and excessive use of isolation.”
A similar scandal in 2007 prompted judges to commit fewer juvenile offenders to state custody and the legislature to take reform action. The number of facilities was more than halved, from 12 to five.
Some have taken the department’s current struggles as an opportunity for reform.
Brett Merfish, director of youth justice at Texas Appleseed, said, “The state facilities are not just failing the youth in them, they are hurting them. Ongoing understaffing leads to an overall lack of safety.'”
The former head of the TJJD, Camille Cain, concurs but reasoned, “Reform is not easy, and it does not happen quickly.”