Texas' Youthful Offender Program. (CT Feature)

By Castlebury, Glen | Corrections Today, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Texas' Youthful Offender Program. (CT Feature)


Castlebury, Glen, Corrections Today


This year, the Texas prison system's Youthful Offender Program has marked its fifth year of operation. With a daily youthful offender population rarely exceeding 250, the program is significantly smaller than the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's other programs that serve its 145,000 inmates. However, the Youthful Offender Program is not small when it comes to the respect and importance bestowed by TDCJ's administration.

TDCJ's youthful offender population, which includes offenders ages 14 to 19, is proof of the old truism that most laws are enacted to deal with the few and not the many. This seems particularly true of a 1995 act that lowered the age, from 15 to 14, at which juveniles can stand trial as adults and be sentenced to adult prisons (offenders automatically are treated as adults at age 17). The new certification law moved TDCJ to create a highly specialized youthful offender program.

There are 1 million children in Texas ages 14 to 16. Last year, 112,000 of these children were adjudicated by the justice system; 1,113 were placed in juvenile facilities under the Texas Youth Commission and 141 were certified to stand trial as adults. Only 39 were sent to the adult prison system. In addition to that small group certified as adults, the Youthful Offender Program's population is augmented by regular prison arrivals ages 17 to 20 and by 16- to 18-year-olds transferred from the state's juvenile system under a determinate sentence law.

TDCJ officials are convinced that the Youthful Offender Program is important to both offenders and the criminal justice system despite its small population and the fact that nearly half of the young offenders are serving terms that will keep them in prison for many years. "It's the right thing to do," says Gary Johnson, TDCJ executive director. "It's right for the security of the unit and it's right for the long-term good of these young offenders, whether they go back on the streets or stay here with us."

Program Launch

The concept of a structured Youthful Offender Program was initiated in 1995 by then-Executive Director Wayne Scott. Like many initiatives Scott launched during his six years at TDCJ, he did not wait for a legislative mandate or budget. Scott assigned the program to the Clemens Unit, a 1 12-year-old prison facility at Brazoria on the Texas Gulf Coast, south of Houston. The location may have been an obvious choice because for years, the all-male unit's 1,100-bed capacity had been populated primarily by younger offenders. A Youthful Offender Program for females is operated at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, but it serves an average daily population of only 15 girls.

Scott's concept won the support of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and for the next two years, TDCJ's Programs and Services Division created a program by using existing resources--counselors already on the payroll, for example --tailoring existing adult programs to reflect the unique needs of younger inmates.

This was not an easy assignment. While 41 percent of the general prison population was convicted for violent offenses, 76 percent of the youthful offenders were convicted for violent crimes. While 55 percent of the general population had substance abuse problems, 85 percent of the youthful offenders were abusers. In addition, intelligence officers estimate that 85 percent of youthful offenders are involved with gangs. Youthful offenders are further profiled as having an average grade level of 5.7 and an average IQ of 95. They have not completed the 10th grade, and have very limited work experience, few positive social skills, and limited or biased knowledge of cultures other than their immediate environment.

Establishing the Program

The program truly came to life in 1997, when it was given a budget and Diana Coates, a TDCJ staff psychologist, was appointed program director. …

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