The Texas Juvenile Justice Department raised officer pay 15 percent in July to confront a long-running staffing and safety crisis. The agency believes the raises boosted safety and support for staff. They led to nearly double the applicants in July and August, the largest number of hires in recent history in September, and more stable turnover through at least August. But, the Texas Tribune reports, the agency in September still had less than half of its budgeted officer positions filled with active employees, as existing officers were still jumping ship. The conclusion: Low pay often isn't officers' main concern. Instead, they care most how they're treated, with poor working conditions ranking as the most common reason for leaving in exit interviews.
Texas’ juvenile prisons have been in crisis for at least 15 years, full of repeated sexual abuse and mistreatment scandals and consistently understaffed. The agency’s officer positions have long been the hardest to fill in state government, with turnover rates significantly higher than for other difficult jobs like adult prison officers and Child Protective Services specialists. This summer, the Juvenile Justice Department hit a breaking point. Months after the agency’s leader abruptly resigned, the interim director told county juvenile justice departments in July she could no longer accept teens sentenced to the youth prison system. The agency was hemorrhaging officers, and most of the new ones hired to stop the bleeding were leaving within six months. Staffing shortages were so severe, kids were often kept in their cells for up to 23 hours, forced to use water bottles and lunch trays as toilets. Agency officials feared the emergency meant they could no longer keep troubled youth safe, as self-harm among children in the prisons had skyrocketed. Said one former employee who gave up on finishing her career with the agency, "If things were still safe there, I'd still be there. When it became dangerous for kids and dangerous for people who worked there, I had to let it go."