Rick Perry has made a bold new move meant to address ongoing abuse and violence in secure juvenile facilities in Texas, where many juveniles, especially those adjudicated for serious crimes, serve the sentence (or disposition) in their case. What move? He has appointed Jay Kimborough, formerly of the Department of Homeland Security and of Texas DPS to head the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
What is that and why does it matter, you may ask? And if you did, I’m glad, because I’m going to tell you. Once upon a time, back in 2007, a serious of scandals erupted in the Texas Youth Commission, the closest thing the juvenile system had to prison, where multiple guards were accused of sexually abusing the youth they confined. This lead to a series of reforms that ultimately lead to merging the Texas Youth Commission with the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission to create the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Before this merger, the Texas Youth Commission held young people adjudicated by the courts of having committed the most serious of crimes and the most recalcitrant to rehabilitation. The focus of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, by contrast, was to emphasize rehabilitation of delinquent youth through programs aimed at supervision in the community to the greatest extent possible. This emphasis really helped a large number of youth turn away from destructive and criminal acts towards completing high school and making positive steps towards a better future. This seemed a step in the right direction and had a variety of positive results, generally applauded by legislators, lawyers, treatment providers, juvenile probation officers, and even many prosecutors as a significant part of the successes seen in many juvenile cases.
While legislators like community rehabilitation for the cost savings compared to secure lock-ups, and lawyers and treatment providers say it provides youth with the best chance to turn their lives around before becoming adult offenders, there is a push for a move in the other direction. A significant number of juvenile arrests and juvenile criminal cases are filed by School Resource Officers, police officers stationed within a school. Two thirteen year old boys in a fist fight over who a pretty girl in their class likes better (when likely she is not interested in either of them) now often results in both boys being detained and charged with assault, a mark on their record that can be difficult to deal with or seal without the assistance of a lawyer. And yet, when I and many of my age group were young, this would have resulted in detention, saturday school, in-school-suspension, or even corporal punishment but certainly not criminal charges.
Or consider a high school student who plays a prank on a rival school by painting a statute of the mascot in their school colors. When I was attending King High School, some of my peers (no I won’t say who) went to rival Carroll High School and painted a prominent sculpture in front of their school green and white (King’s colors). No one was caught. Had they been, back then the punishment would very likely have involved repainting the sculpture the original blue color and perhaps other community service. These days, such actions could result in a variety of criminal charges such as graffiti and criminal mischief for damage of property.
Indeed, recent news reports that a 6 year old in Gerogia was handcuffed and driven to the police station in a patrol vehicle after throwing a tantrum in class.
Agains the backdrop of this evolution towards greater incarceration and over-punishment and de-emphasizing rehabilitation and re-education of our troubled youth, the appointment of someone from Homeland Security to head the government entity tasked with handling youthful offenders is troubling.
This is the latest in a series of changes to Texas Juvenile Justice that shows just how important it is to have a skilled juvenile defense attorney fighting for your child in court.