Young Offenders Need Developmentally Appropriate Rehabilitation

Brett Merfish

Over the past six months, the juvenile justice headlines dominating the news have focused on scandals and dysfunction within the system, prompting changes in Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) leadership and revitalizing calls for reform of the entire system.With this renewed focus on whether TJJD’s programming, services, and structure are truly rehabilitating youth, we must also take a hard look at how youth are faring in adult facilities, particularly given suggestions that TJJD may transfer more determinate sentenced youth early to Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) institutions.

Unfortunately, this response is not new. Over the past three years, TJJD has significantly increased the percentage of determinate sentenced youth it transfers to TDCJ institutions.(1) TJJD has defended this practice as an attempt to discourage disruptions in its own facilities, but data show this practice isn’t working.(2) And TDCJ data show that once transferred, these youth are at increased risk of harm and behavioral problems, in essence shifting youth to another facility without providing the rehabilitation and treatment that would address their behavioral issues.

Experts also tell us that justice-involved youth have high levels of trauma; some studies estimate that over 90% of justice-involved youth have experienced at least one trauma with many experiencing more — on average 5 different types of trauma or exposure to violence.(3) Placing youth who have experienced trauma in secure confinement with older adult offenders places them at high risk of being re-victimized and re-traumatized, exacerbating behavioral problems rather than addressing them. And once youth turn 18, they are moved into programs with older adults, despite research which tells us that a successful approach would address developmental differences that continue to affect young people into their early 20s.

In fact, data from TDCJ tends to confirm poor outcomes and high risk to youth associated with this approach, showing that youth in its custody are suffering and with those under the age of 18 at particularly high risk. While offenders 21 and under make up just over 3% of the population in TDCJ facilities, they account for 16% of all suicide attempts and 9% of completed suicides.(4) In fiscal year 2017, there were 30 17-year-olds at TDCJ and 30 suicide attempts by 17-year-olds. Their rate of attempted suicide is 13 times the rate of attempted suicide for 18- to 21-year-olds.(5) A recent news story focusing on a former TDCJ employee’s experience working with 17-year-old offenders in TDCJ custody told of a culture in which at least one offender was in solitary confinement for two years, inmates routinely fought because they were left unsupervised for hours, guards taunted a mentally ill teenager, and sexual contact occurred between a 17-year-old and an adult offender.

All of this makes clear that Texas should be should be looking for opportunities to significantly reduce the number of young offenders in its prisons, rather than increasing them, reserving the prison setting for only those youth whose crimes are so serious that they cannot be safely rehabilitated elsewhere. That’s why Texas Appleseed has supported efforts to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, and why we oppose moving determinate sentence youth to the prison setting early,particularly when it isn't clear that TJJD has offered them meaningful rehabilitation and treatment to address behavioral issues prior to punishing them with a transfer to TDCJ. And for the young people who cannot be safely rehabilitated outside the prison setting, we must have developmentally appropriate programming in a safe setting.

Anything else sets all of us up for failure, by running the risk that precious taxpayer resources are not being directed in a way that ensures these young people return to their communities ready to lead productive lives.


  1. Texas Juvenile Justice Department Memo to Members of the Texas Senate Committee on Finance, Hearing Follow-up (Feb. 9, 2017).
  2. Recommendations for Next Steps in Juvenile Justice Reform (Jan. 2018), available at
  3. See Rosenberg, H. J., Vance, J. E., Rosenberg, S. D., Wolford, G. L., Ashley, S. W., & Howard, M. L., Trauma exposure, psychiatric disorders, and resiliency in juvenile-justice-involved youth, Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(4), 430-437 (2014); Abram, K. et al., Posttraumatic stress disorder and trauma in youth in juvenile detention, National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice: OJJDP Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2013); Ford, J. D., Grasso, D. J., Hawke, J., & Chapman, J. F., Poly-victimization among juvenile justice-involved youths, Child Abuse & Neglect, 37(10), 788-800 (2013).
  4. Data acquired by Texas Appleseed from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (2018).
  5. Id.