TEXAS VIEW: Texas juvenile lockups will remain understaffed unless lawmakers act

THE POINT: Salaries are low, but they’re not the only problem.

Cataloging the problems of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department is a depressing task: Children waiting three or more hours for a bathroom break. Correctional officers ringing and ringing for backup. Kids harming themselves. Caretakers facing allegations of sex abuse. Several facilities under federal investigation.

But the agency’s biggest headache is that it can’t keep its staff, which jeopardizes the safety of the children under its care and the correctional officers who remain. We worry that recent recommendations from the Sunset Advisory Commission to fix TJJD do little to address the staffing issue. It’s a problem that has to do with more than just poor pay.

The agency’s situation is dire. In 2021, there was a 71% turnover rate for correctional officers, according to a state study. In its report, the Sunset Advisory Commission recognizes that TJJD must address staffing or else “remain in a cycle of instability.” But ultimately the commission replaced a recommendation to seek additional funding from the Legislature for “staffing stabilization” with a request to fund two additional juvenile facilities.

Counties in North Texas are feeling the pressure of TJJD’s failure to keep its staff. The agency declined to take more children this summer, which left teens in the custody of county detention facilities for even longer.

In July, as the agency began to collapse, TJJD gave officers a 15% raise with hopes it might help with retention. But state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, said salaries remain “significantly” below market rate.

“I expect that without additional funds for staff pay, the agency will not be able to do what we ask of it: Rehabilitate youth in the criminal justice system (current conditions exacerbate their trauma) and to ensure public safety,” Johnson, a member of the Sunset Advisory Commission, told us in an email.

According to a state report, the average annual salary for a junior juvenile correctional officer at TJJD — about $37,000 — is almost $10,000 less than the market average salary for that job.

Juvenile justice advocates told us that raising salaries alone won’t bring back staff. The culture inside the detention centers matters greatly to employees, and TJJD has been navigating years of chaos.

The Texas Tribune reported last week that one correctional officer went hours without a bathroom break and soiled her clothes. Former staffers also described experiencing a disabling physical injury and mental health challenges because of their jobs. The women blamed management, not the children who were under their care.

It’s clear that state lawmakers must address this staffing crisis next year when they convene again at the Texas Capitol. They have to grapple not only with questions about pay but also with the more challenging job of creating a safe and stable environment at the agency.

The Dallas Morning News