The Texas Legislature faced a big task this year: fixing the increasingly unstable youth prison system. Proposals ranged from closing the state’s five remaining youth prisons and relying on local systems to rehabilitate children involved in criminal behavior to spending hundreds of millions to build additional state lockups. Lawmakers opted for the latter, passing a budget with $200 million set aside to build two or three additional state-run prisons to hold at least 200 more youth. Currently, fewer than 600 juveniles are imprisoned, reports the Texas Tribune. In a bill that authorizes the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s continued existence after a "sunset" review, legislators approved required the transfer of some teenagers from the juvenile justice system into the harsher, more punitive adult prison system. Such transfers have already been increasing as the juvenile agency has sought to restore order within its prisons. A 16-year-old who died by suicide shortly after he was sent to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
This year's measures are a stark reversal from more than a decade of Texas trending away from imprisoning children. With the juvenile justice agency's history of scandals, state and county officials have shifted toward keeping more youth who’ve engaged in criminal behavior under local supervision, where research suggests they have the best outcomes. Since 2007, the state has closed eight prisons and shrunk the imprisoned youth population from about 5,000 to less than 600. The youths still sent to the state often are the most difficult to manage because of violent behavior, severe mental health needs or both. Although the sunset bill requires the agency to come up with a plan to find more local resources to keep children closer to home — and the budget gives a boost to local juvenile probation departments and diversion programs — lawmakers also pushed to build more facilities after the state projected more teenagers will be sent to the state agency in the near future after a pandemic-era slump. Social justice groups have condemned the plans to build new facilities and to send more youth to adult prisons.