$250M Proposal To Expand Juvenile Detention Facilities Under Consideration

Photo by Public Records / Getty Images / Maggie Q. Thompson

Travis County’s justice system is back in the same fraught position it found itself in 2021, when some in the system pushed for the creation of a new women’s jail while others outside of it fiercely resisted.

That struggle ended with the Commissioners Court rejecting a new jail for women. Now, the county’s judges are proposing a plan to create new buildings to hold juveniles accused of crimes. Once again, advocates oppose the plan. And once again, the Commissioners Court will decide which way to go. The court hears arguments for and against the proposal on June 27.

The setup for the unfolding drama came last week, when the Travis County Juvenile Board – the community’s 21 district judges, plus county judge Andy Brown – approved a proposal known as the Comprehensive Facilities Plan, which includes non-secure housing (i.e. detention facilities that aren’t locked). The plan has been in the works since 2017, at which time its outlines were vague and it was projected to cost about $70 million. The plan approved on June 21 is different; it’s quite detailed and the cost is much higher – between $250 and $300 million.

The Comprehensive Facilities Plan would greatly enlarge the juvenile justice campus near South Congress Avenue and Oltorf Street, where children accused of crimes from theft to murder are held before trial or after being found guilty. It would create three new buildings across from the county’s existing detention facilities – the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center and the Jeanne Meurer Intermediate Sanctions Center.

Travis County’s Juvenile Probation Department has been calling for the creation of the new buildings for years, saying that Gardner Betts and the ISC are aging facilities built to treat children like adult offenders. The department says it needs softer spaces for children in trouble, with non-secure housing and gathering places for rehabilitation programs. These are central parts of the plan. “We think it’s a good plan,” Chief Cory Burgess, the head of the Juvenile Probation Office, told the Chronicle. “We think this plan will be one of the ways that we can keep kids out of the system, while also addressing public safety long term.”

But the Public Defender’s Office, which provides free legal representation to impoverished kids and adults, is firmly against it. Attorney Rubén Castañeda, who has represented children in Travis County for three decades, circulated a letter on Monday criticizing what he calls the Juvenile Board’s lack of transparency, saying its vote to approve the Comprehensive Facilities Plan caught him and others by surprise. He also reiterated his argument that building new facilities is a waste of money that would be better used to provide drug treatment and other services.

Judge Maria Cantú Hexsel, chair of the Juvenile Board, denied any lack of transparency, noting that the meeting agenda included this line item: “Consider and approve new policies and policy revisions for the Travis County Juvenile Probation Department and take any action deemed necessary.”

“The Comprehensive Facilities Plan is a poor use of the county’s resources,” Castañeda wrote. “It is a better use of resources to invest in people and refurbish currently existing facilities. The Meurer ISC is only 23 years old. According to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, the Meurer ISC has a rated capacity of 118 residents. There are currently 31 children in the ISC. That number has not significantly varied over the past several years. There is empty space in the ISC that is not being used. That space can be repurposed for what Juvenile Probation is requesting.”

This argument is being voiced by everyone opposed to the plan, including the boss of the Public Defender’s Office, Adeola Ogunkeyede, and Alycia Castillo of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who is organizing other groups to speak against the plan. “It’s short notice and everybody’s kind of trying to reschedule things but we’ll be there at the Commissioners Court on Thursday,” Castillo said.