Tarrant County has a problem in its juvenile detention center. The center recently reached an all-time high of juveniles at 138 in April. One minor waited 336 days in detention for a pre-trial hearing. 

While referrals to juvenile services have decreased since 2000, the length of time youths are staying in juvenile detention is increasing, a recent report to the Tarrant County Commissioners Court found. 

Tarrant County is investing an additional $2 million and 21 staff members into juvenile services to solve the problem. However, experts say, the investment likely won’t address the root cause of the problem: an inefficient juvenile court, outdated policies and dysfunctional state prison system.

Juvenile services takes a development-oriented approach to working with kids, ​​said Bennie Medlin, director and chief probation officer for Tarrant County Juvenile Services.

“It is not simple to do, but our vision is about transforming,” Medlin said. “If you want to reduce delinquency, we want to save communities — we think that we can do those things and we can work with kids so they’re transformed when they come through our system.”

However, Medlin also knows that confinement in a juvenile detention center inflicts its own form of trauma on an already vulnerable population. 

“We know that one of the most traumatic things that we can do is put a kid into a detention center,” Medlin said. “I’m not suggesting that some kids don’t need to be detained because some do, but we know from what we learned about trauma and trauma-informed care that we should try to get kids out of that situation as quickly as we can, so we can get them back into those normal environments.”

Research backs up Medlin’s approach. Pretrial juvenile detention increases felony recidivism, or the likelihood of returning to prison, by 33%, a 2020 study published in Crime & Delinquency found. The average length of a stay in Tarrant County’s juvenile detention center is 25 days, up nearly 50% compared with 2010. 

The issue impacts children of color most acutely in Tarrant County and across the country. At one time, 92% of 116 children held in detention before trial are kids of color, according to a recent report to the Tarrant County Commissioners Court. 

“It is just the reality that white kids are engaging in similar behavior to Black or Latinx kids and not being pulled into the system for a host of different reasons,” said Jessica Feierman, senior managing director at the Juvenile Law Center.

Harsher policing of majority-minority schools and neighborhoods is a part of the problem, but implicit biases in the justice system also play a large role, Feierman said. 

Out of the 104 kids in Tarrant County’s Juvenile Detention center, 18 have been tried and are awaiting transfer to a state juvenile prison — which is not currently accepting transfers due to staffing issues. The rest are juveniles awaiting trial in Tarrant County. 

How does a child end up in pretrial confinement? 

The juvenile services department accepts transfers from all law enforcement agencies across Tarrant County — police departments, university law enforcement, hospital police etc. When youths are taken into the detention center, the staff determines if they will be held in detention for a pretrial hearing or released to a guardian. A detention hearing is scheduled for the following business day. The Texas Family Code offers guidance on when a child is detained before trial. The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office could require juvenile services to hold a child in detention if they commit an offense that requires a referral to the District Attorney. 

The most common reasons for detention in 2021 were: 

  • Dangerous to themselves or others
  • Previously committed a crime 
  • There is no parent or guardian 

Once a juvenile is referred to the District Attorney’s office, the office may file a juvenile petition for a felony or misdemeanor offense. The Texas Family Code sets a maximum time period that juveniles may be detained without filing a petition (30 days for certain felony offenses 15 days for others). If the District Attorney’s office does not file a petition in 30 days, the juvenile has to be released from detention. 

Finally, once the petition is filed, a detention hearing must be set for every 10 days until a detained juvenile is released.

“We want to ensure that kids have the resources they need to thrive in their communities, ” Feierman said. “(Institutions) tend to be highly stressful environments, rather than environments that are conducive to support and therapeutic approaches.”

These conditions can worsen when a detention center lacks adequate space and staffing, studies show. A 1998 study by the Youth Law Center found that long stays in short-term detention centers and overcrowding leads to heightened levels of violence and emotional distress. 

“Having many, many young people and very few staff is going to lead to problems,” Feierman said. 

Tarrant County is housing 104 kids with 52 staff members in its detention center, Medlin said. The county is required to maintain a ratio of eight kids to one employee. Staffing shortages have forced employees to work consistent overtime hours, Medlin said.

“When we’re fully staffed, that means staff is working less overtime, they’re more alert to what’s going on around them, they provide better safety and security for the kids as well as themselves,” Medlin said.  

Hiring additional staff will allow juvenile services to provide more regular shifts to its employees, therefore increasing the quality of services the county can provide, Medlin said. 

What additional staff members will the county provide?

  • 5 juvenile probation officers
  • 1 administrative assistant 
  • 4 assistant case worker supervisors
  • 10 institutional probation officers 
  • 1 cook 

The county works with local providers to ensure youths have access to therapeutic services while they’re in confinement, Medlin said. The first step is a needs and risk assessment to determine if a child is at risk of reoffending, and what services they might need, Medlin said. 

“We try to really use that information to guide the decisions that we make about recommendations to the court treatment, case management, any kind of services that a kid needs in the community,” Medlin said. 

Juvenile services partners with organizations like My Health My Resources Tarrant County to provide services related to mental health, substance abuse, mentoring and community supervision, Medlin said. 

It’s imperative that, when confinement is unavoidable, these services are top-notch, Feierman said. 

“Carefully identifying what any individual young person needs is really important,” Feierman said. “The quality of any educational services, mental health services or others should be of the same quality that any of us would want for our kids if they were in a moment of crisis.”

The county operates six satellite probation offices with officers responsible for monitoring kids within their communities, ensuring they are connected with the right kinds of services. Community partners then provide those services, Medlin said. 

More important than access to services and proper staff-to-child ratios is diverting children from detention in the first place, Feierman said. 

“Rather than pouring more resources into a facility to cover the number of young people who are in a facility, counties should figure out whether there are more young people who could be served in their community,” Feierman said. “Once you are able to bring more young people out of the facility, you’ll also take care of those staffing issues.”

She points to a juvenile detention reform guide for county officials, produced by Annie E. Casey Foundation and the National Association of Counties, which lays out best practices for reducing the number of youths kept in detention centers. 

Tarrant County’s juvenile district court is hearing cases at a much slower rate than required under Texas Family Code, the report to the Tarrant County Commissioners Court found. The juvenile district court employs two associate judges found to be passing, canceling or resetting more than half of the cases assigned to their courts. 

The report to the Tarrant County Commissioners Court identifying these problems suggested a variety of solutions, including hiring an employee to monitor the length of juvenile stays in detention. 

Other recommendations called on the juvenile board, a governing body made up of other judges, to institute reforms meant to improve the efficiency of the juvenile court. A full list of recommendations can be found in the report. 

In the meantime, additional staff will ease the burden on existing staff, Medlin said. 

“The additional staff is going to give us the supervision that is needed to ensure those folks have been properly trained and have the support they need to do their jobs and the work that they do. it’s a positive thing all the way around.”

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Rachel Behrndt

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org