While the number of youths in confinement for noncriminal offenses has dropped by 52 percent nationally in the past decade, thousands, including many young Texans, remain in detention for minor misbehavior like truancy and curfew violations, according to a report released this week by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“Though we’ve seen progress in reducing reliance on incarceration for these behaviors, far too many youth are placed in secure detention for crimes that pose no threat to public safety,” Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the foundation and co-author of the report, said in a statement.
The report suggests that a greater focus on intervention by the community — where families, schools and churches can act as sources of support and strengthen social ties — is a better way to handle youths who have committed minor offenses. That could be addressed in part by Senate Bill 1114, passed last year by the Legislature, which allows for more intervention and corrective measures from a school in certain cases rather than having to use the criminal justice system.
In recent years, Texas has seen a sharp decline in the number of students confined in county detention centers away from their communities. In 2005, the number was around 5,000, Levin said. It has dropped 74 percent since then.
Still, Texas accounts for more than 15 percent of the confinements nationally, with 1,300 juveniles being held in detention facilities for status offenses, which are nonviolent misbehaviors, such as causing disruption in schools, running away from home or consuming tobacco or alcohol, Levin said.
Many status offenders are children from troubled homes who have faced traumatic childhoods, or who have mental health and special education needs.
“Incarceration is the last place where many of these youth should be,” Levin said in the statement. “This punishment not only fails to fit the crime, it increases the likelihood that teens will grow up to be serious offenders.”
While confinement can help in certain situations, such as when a family cannot properly look after the child, according to the report, removing students from their friends and family and placing them in an environment where they are surrounded by juvenile offenders can put them at a higher risk for developing “behaviors of higher-risk youth, such as anti-social perspectives and gang affiliation.”
“It’s important to ensure that kids who have committed status offenses are mixing with regular kids, too,” said Deborah Fowler, the deputy director at Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that advocates for juvenile justice reform.
Confining students away from their communities can also make it harder for them to re-enter society, increasing their likelihood of being detained again, the report stated.
Status offenders in Texas can be confined in a state or county detention facility for a maximum of 24 hours, with one provision — violation of a valid court order by the youth — allowing for the possibility of a 72-hour detention, according to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. But in Texas, truancy is considered a criminal offense, not just a status violation. Students accused of truancy have to be tried in juvenile courts and can be subject to stricter confinement, resulting in a period of 10 to 15 days — a period that is subject to further extension by the court.
“We are ridiculously out of step in the way we handle truancy,” Fowler said. “Those kids should be receiving other services doing the things that kids should be doing, rather than being locked up in a facility with juveniles who commit real criminal offenses.”
Lance White, the juvenile program manager in the criminal justice division at the office of the governor, said some county detention centers "are not well-versed on the law in status offenses" and have mistakenly held youths charged with status offenses longer than they are legally allowed.
Jim Hurley, a spokesman for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, said if the department finds out about such cases, it will investigate and work with the county or other jurisdiction to address the issue.
“Whenever there are any changes in the law, we try to compile them and educate the counties and other entities that confine students for status offenses,” Hurley said.
TJJD facilities do not take in any students for confinement on status offenses, Hurley said. They only detain students who are sent to them by a juvenile court for having committed a felony. Students confined for status offenses are held at the county level.
Texas is also one of 33 states that allow judges to order that a youth be confined for violating a court order. The law allows for a status offense to turn into a criminal offense if the juvenile does not follow the original court order.