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Juvenile Lockups Locking Their Doors This Week

July 27, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas - Four Texas Youth Commission (TYC) lockups are locking their doors for good this week, as the state's juvenile-justice system prepares for a major transformation.

TYC and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission are slated to merge into a single department by December. The goal, says Benet Magnuson, an attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's Juvenile Justice Initiative, is to dramatically reduce the number of juveniles who wind up behind bars, diverting many toward rehabilitation programs in their own communities.

"A kid's community is the best tool we have to accomplish that rehabilitation. And rehabilitation becomes a lot harder if a kid is locked up in a state facility. Texas has used that approach for many years, and the results have not been good."

TYC facilities gained nationwide notoriety in 2007 with widespread allegations of abuse and neglect. Since then, lawmakers have been intent on implementing and funding a series of reforms. The prison-based model, Magnuson says, has proved costly as well as ineffective in reducing crime and setting youths - especially low-risk offenders - straight.

Magnuson is optimistic about the goals of the new Juvenile Justice Department: emphasizing guidance and support above punishment. The question now, he says, is implementation. Without proper monitoring, he warns, some counties could find themselves without the necessary resources to succeed.

"It's going to be up to county departments, advocate organizations (and) families to really make sure that the potential of this reform is met - and keeping track of those areas where there's going to be need for future changes."

If all goes well, Magnuson says, Texas could emerge as a national model for rehabilitating young people who get into trouble with the law.

"Unfortunately, this all started with Texas in the headlines for the abuses, and it would be a great story if we were able to make sure that these kids aren't falling back into patterns of crime and getting stuck in the criminal system."

Six state lockups are remaining open, absorbing juvenile offenders from the four facilities which are closing.

Texas' young-inmate population is already on the decline as the state's new priorities have evolved. More than 4,000 youths were behind bars in 2006. Today, that number is about 1,400.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX