An exhaustive new study has found alarming conditions for Texas teenagers housed in adult jails while awaiting trial, a practice that Dallas and Harris counties use more than anywhere else in the state.
In essence, the study found that there's really no good way to keep teens and adults safely in the same jail: Teenagers who share showers, toilets, day-rooms or other common areas with adult inmates are at severe risk for physical and especially sexual abuse.
Yet placing them in solitary confinement, as some jails do for their protection, increases these teenagers' chances of depression, paranoia and other serious mental health issues. At many of these jails, teens are only let out of their cells for an hour a day. Researchers also found a lack of educational opportunities for those teens in adult facilities, which they say increases their chances of offending again when they're released.
"I don't think children should be in adult jail," one jail official told the researchers. "Adults jails are not equipped to handle children. Even those who have committed serious crimes, like capital murder, should be housed in juvenile facilities." Another jail official said that the idea "was wrong from its infancy."
The study, conducted by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT Austin in collaboration with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, asked jail administrators about the provisions in place for teens who have been "certified" to appear in adult criminal court. A teenager can only be certified if they're at least 14 at the time of the alleged offense, which must be a capital felony, a first-degree felony or an aggravated controlled substance felony. Teens between 15 and 17 can also be certified for second- or third-degree or state jail felonies.
In Harris and Dallas counties, the researchers found "exponentially more juveniles than any other counties." Between 2006 and 2010, Dallas County had 156 certified teens. Harris had 359. The third-highest, Bexar, trailed with only 75. The study rejects the argument that population size accounts for the higher number of certifications: "The data indicates that the 15 counties that certify the largest numbers of youth are not the 15 largest counties in the state." Small numbers of counties certify large numbers of teens, they found, while 90 percent of counties certify less than one per year.
In almost 75 percent of the jails surveyed, teenagers are kept in their own cells near adult prisoners. But they're not "isolated by sight and sound" from adult inmates, the study found, and in many of the jails, teens and adults may mingle in other parts of the jail: showers, recreation areas, chapel and educational classes.
One effort to keep adult and juvenile prisoners separate is to simply keep the younger prisoners in their cells, and that, it appears, is what many of the jails are doing. Twenty-five jails, or 61 percent of those surveyed, allowed teens an hour or less out-of-cell time each day.
"When jail staff decide to house a juvenile in isolation, although there is a great reduction in the risk of physical or sexual assault, the risk of mental health problems increases," the researchers say. Even a few days of solitary confinement can cause "stupor or delirium," and "prolonged or permanent psychiatric disability may occur," including problems that reduce the teen's ability to reintegrate into society when released. (Our sister paper in Houston published a story in 2009 detailing the many problems with teens in solitary confinement.)
"But they're in jail!" you might say. But this study only tracks pretrial prisoners, and the researchers found that many of the certified teens were released either immediately after trial or "after relatively short periods of incarceration." The data indicates that the majority of them won't serve time in prison, instead receiving community supervision, short county jails sentences, or having their cases dismissed, no-billed, or being found innocent.
Adult county jails also can't provide teens with adequate educational opportunities; 48 percent of the jails surveyed had no formal education programs of any kind. Jails that do provide GED classes often lump in teens and adults together. So when a teen is released from jail, they're usually badly behind their peers, making it harder for them to stay in school. And that's no small detail: A study in the American Economic Review found that each one-year increase in school time decreases the likelihood that someone will commit a violent crime by 30 percent.
Finally, holding teens in adult jails can be expensive. Adult jails often need extra staff members to supervise teens or transport them. A few jails use an entire wing of their building in order to hold one teenage prisoner in isolation from adults, wasting bed space. One jail they studied had four teens in a pod built to hold 22 people. "During this time, the jail could have saved $66 per day by transferring these four youths to the juvenile detention center, which would have resulted in annual cost savings of nearly $24,090 for the jail."
Jail officials and other experts have been warning for years that holding teens in adult facilities is a bad idea. Before last year, though, certified teens in Texas were required to be held in adult county jails while awaiting trial. But a 2011 state law, S.B. 1209, now allows certified teens to be held in juvenile facilities. The study recommends that Texas counties do just that. In cases where it's not possible, they say, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards should come up with clear guidelines for how jail officials should house teenagers, since many had little or no idea what they were supposed to do.
But the ACLU of Texas says that's not enough. In a press release responding to the study, the civil rights group wrote, "The lesson here is that kids simply don't belong and can't be kept safe in adult facilities. ... Now that we have the concrete data from researchers at LBJ, it's clear that S.B. 1209 does not provide enough protection for youth confined in Texas jails. It's time for Texas to fill this gap and work to ensure that teenage offenders are kept in the juvenile justice system where they have a better chance of staying safe, returning home and becoming productive citizens."