Justice advocates criticize county’s plan to expand $300 million juvenile prison

Thursday July 11, 2024 by Lina Fisher

At its June 27 meeting, the Travis County Commissioners Court considered spending $250 million to $300 million to expand the county’s juvenile detention complex in South Austin. A united front of more than 50 justice advocates voiced unanimous opposition to the plan, arguing that the expansion would represent a doubling down on jail tactics rather than diversion, which is what the county recently moved toward with its diversion center plan. For all those who were there in 2021 for the community’s rebuke of the proposal for a new women’s prisonThe discussion probably gave themAlready seen.

The juvenile probation department submitted the expansion as part of the county’s comprehensive facilities plan, adopted in 2017. In June, the juvenile board released an updated proposal for the facilities plan to add tThree new buildings would be added to the county’s existing juvenile jail campus, Gardner Betts, and would double its size. The first would add 32 “non-secure” dormitory-style beds, meaning rooms that are supervised but unlocked; the second would add 16 transitional housing beds for children in rehabilitation to reintegrate into the community; and the third would house offices, meeting rooms, classrooms and spaces to provide treatment and counseling on campus.

According to the juvenile probation service, the new facilities are necessary because the old ones do not include any unsecured or transitional housing. Currently, when there is a shortage of space, the juvenile probation department places children up to 100 miles away in facilities that may not meet Travis County’s standards of care, increasing costs for the county. They say the new space would be also contribute to filling gaps in the continuum of services, improve restorative justice programs and reduce recidivism to decrease the likelihood of children ending up in the adult criminal justice system. According to county data, 52 percent of children in Gardner Betts are at risk of reoffending.

However, county public defenders who provide legal defense to these youths question whether these changes will address those needs. Ruben Castañeda, a 26-year-old juvenile public defender in Travis County, asked commissioners if they had spoken to community leaders during the planning process, since the Comprehensive Facilities Plan was only released last month: “My office represents pretty much every kid in the system. I’m all for investing in resources for these kids and families, but we need to know and understand What “I don’t know if they need a centralized facility that would be difficult for them to access,” because about 50 percent of the county’s incarcerated children reside in neighborhoods far from Gardner Betts, near South Congress Avenue and Oltorf Street. He suggested conducting an exit survey of children and families who have been through the system to better understand what services are currently available that are working and which aren’t.

Defenders have also consistently stressed He revealed how many community services could be funded with $300 million, such as family counseling and drug treatment programs, to keep children out of prison. Maggie Luna, executive director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, said it took her five years to get her son out of the foster care system.

“He’s been home for two years now, thanks to the help of our community members. He’s a different kid now. The system told me he was going to end up in jail,” she said. “The kids we send there are redeemable, but … there’s no trauma-informed incarceration. They’re still incarcerating kids.”

Bob Batlan of Advocates for Social Justice Reform said: “The thought process of designing buildings that could theoretically support the services needed is putting the cart before the horse. Commissioners need to better understand the services that could help our young people. The data suggests that detention – whether juvenile or adult – is rarely the route to good community outcomes.”

Juvenile advocates’ disagreement with probation boils down to this: Juvenile probation is intended to bolster the capacity for future incarceration, and advocates want to avoid any reliance on future incarceration. Although they postponed the vote after hearing testimony on June 27, commissioners have voted one way on this issue before.

“Travis County has expressed these principles in previous votes on the women’s prison, saying that building new facilities is not the way forward,” he added.Chief Public Defender Adeola “I therefore ask you to recommit to these same principles today,” Ogunkeyede said.

THE Austin MonitorThe work of is made possible by donations from the community. While our reporting occasionally covers donors, we are careful to separate commercial and editorial efforts while maintaining transparency. A full list of donors is available here , and our code of ethics is explained here .

You are a community leader

And we’re honored that you turn to us for serious, in-depth reporting. You know that a strong community needs dedicated local reporting and monitoring. We’re here for you, and that won’t change. Now will you take the next critical step and support our nonprofit news organization?