Each year, a handful of Dallas county teenagers accused of crimes are "certified," meaning they're being charged as adults and will appear in adult criminal court. While they await trial, they sit in Dallas county jail. We've learned that while in jail, these teens are kept in their cells for 23 hours a day. A researcher visiting the jail a few weeks ago was also told that the teens aren't being provided with educational instruction while they're locked up, which, if true, would be a violation of state and federal law.
In mid-May, we wrote about a statewide study of the conditions for certified juveniles being held in adult jails. The researchers, who were from UT Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs, found that Dallas and Harris counties certify "exponentially more" teens than other Texas counties.
To be certified to stand trial as an adult, a teen must be 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. (The researchers also found that the majority of the certified juveniles they tracked were never sentenced to prison time, instead receiving community supervision, short county jail sentences, or having their cases dismissed, no-billed, or being found innocent.)
Jail administrators, the study's lead author Michele Deitch told us recently, are "between a rock and a hard place" when it comes to housing these teens.
"If they put the youth in with the adult offenders, they're putting them at risk of physical and sexual abuse, suicide, all sorts of things," she told us. "You don't want to put them in with the adult offenders for housing purposes."
But the alternative is isolation, apparently the route Dallas County has chosen. Carmen Castro, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Department, told us via email that certified juveniles are kept in their cells 23 hours a day, with one hour of "gym time."
"Juveniles certified as adults are housed in a separate section of the jail, each inside their own single-person cell," she wrote. "There is a partition separating the juveniles from the rest of the jail population. These juveniles have no direct interaction with the adult population at any time." In early June, there were three juveniles in Dallas county; our understanding is there aren't any housed there currently. The total numbers per year are "a handful," says Deitch. "We're talking in the zero to eight range per year."
Deitch and her co-authors warn that solitary confinement, even for short periods, can lead to depression, paranoia and other serious mental health issues. And despite the fact that only a few teens are put in adult jail in Dallas County per year, Deitch says it's a bad situation for both the teens and the jails stuck housing them.
"The bottom line is they don't belong there," she says. "And that's why the jails can't figure out what to do with them. They're really better served in a juvenile facility where they can get age-appropriate services." She's not faulting the jail administrators, she says. "They are not doing this out of ill-will or anything like that. ... The facilities are completely not set up for the housing of juveniles."
Sheriff's department spokesperson Castro didn't respond to repeated requests to put us in touch with a jail administrator to discuss the housing of certified juveniles in more detail. A call to Sheriff Lupe Valdez hasn't been returned.
For years, the norm in Texas had been to keep teens charged as adults in adult facilities. But in their last session, the Texas Legislature passed S.B. 1209, which in addition to mandating "sight and sound separation" between adults and teens in adult facilities, says that the juvenile court can order that a teen be housed in a juvenile facility instead.
The decision to keep certified juveniles in adult jails lies with Dallas County's juvenile board. The board members include County Commissioners Clay Jenkins and John Wiley Price and a number of sitting judges.
"Under the new law, the juvenile board has to adopt a policy saying, 'Yes we're willing to hold these kids in the juvenile detention center,'" Deitch explains. "Then the judge in an individual case has to order the kid to be held in juvenile detention center." But some counties, she adds, have decided not to implement this new policy. "Dallas is one of them." Harris County, which along with Dallas leads the state in certifying juveniles, voted in May to keep those teens in juvenile facilities.
Calls to Jenkins and Price were not returned; instead, Price forwarded our call to Dr. Terry Smith, the director of the Dallas County Juvenile Department. Smith told us in a phone conversation that as far as she knows, certified juveniles aren't kept in their cells 23 hours a day anymore.
"That hasn't been my understanding," she said. She said she visited the jail with a large group about a month and a half ago, and didn't have an opportunity to talk individually with the two juveniles who were there. (When Deitch visited a few weeks ago, there were no teens there, and she spoke only to jail staff.)
Deitch says she was told that instructors aren't being sent to the jail for any teens housed there. "They're not getting educational programming now," she says. "They used to in the past, but they aren't now. They would have to bring in the school district to provide those services and I guess that hasn't been happening."
Besides, she adds, "The physical set-up is such that they can't do schooling." The juveniles are kept down a long hallway, she says, "a row of single cells with metal doors," that, when she visited, were separated from the adult cells "by literally a sheet hanging between them." There's no classroom space for the teens to use. "It would have to be basically a teacher standing at the cell door. I can't envision that being a productive experience."
But during Smith's visit, she says jail staff "showed me where [the juveniles] were, in an isolated wing" and told her that "programming" was being provided -- "books and a teacher that was coming." The teacher was actually there when the group visited, she said, and was standing between the two occupied cells giving instruction.
"I didn't see what's been reported to you," in terms of 23 hours a day of isolation, she said. "Our goal is to do what's best by the kids. The passage of S.B. 1209 afforded basic privileges for them and put some safeguards in place. The data will show you that kids in the adult system have had terrible things happen to them. The sheriff has been very diligent in enforcing the mandates."
Smith said the board has also recently discussed expediting the cases of certified juveniles so they don't have to spend as long in jail, and is constantly re-evaluating other ways to provide them the best possible services. "The juvenile board just wants what's best for the child."