Advocates Overwhelmingly Oppose Expanding Juvenile Jail Campus

They say services shouldn’t be tied to incarceration

Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center (photo by Jana Birchum)

The Travis County Juvenile Probation Department has a big ask. It wants the county to spend $250 million to $300 million of taxpayer money to expand its juvenile detention complex in South Austin. Prospects for the plan’s approval look bleak, however. A unanimous wall of social justice advocates have come out against it.

The leaders of Juvenile Probation presented their proposal, known as the Comprehensive Facilities Plan, at a Commissioners Court meeting on June 27. The plan would add three new buildings to what is known colloquially as Gardner Betts – the county’s juvenile jail and justice campus near South Congress Avenue and Oltorf Street, where children accused of crimes are held before trial or after being found guilty.

The three new buildings would double the size of the campus. One would add 32 beds of what is called non-secure housing – unlocked, dorm-style rooms overseen by probation employees. Another would add 16 beds of transitional housing for children who are ready to move back into the community but don’t have a home to go to. The third building would house offices and meeting rooms to provide treatment services, traditional and vocational classrooms, and a snack bar. Juvenile Probation leaders say the new facilities would help it expand its restorative justice programs and divert children accused of crimes from the criminal justice system.

That’s not how advocates see the plan. At least 50 of them, representing a host of social justice groups, spoke after the Juvenile Probation presentation on June 27. Not one supported the current plan.

Bill Wallace, who spent several months at Gardner Betts in the late 1990s and now runs the youth mentoring group Tomorrow’s Promise, was one of several who referred to the new facilities as a “jail.” “No one is going to look me in the eye and tell me that you’re going to invest $300 million into a juvenile jail and then turn around and spend money and resources to prevent kids from going to that jail,” Wallace said. “You’re not going to let this pretty building sit empty, and that’s just the truth. So either we’re going to invest in jails and punishments, or we’re going to invest in resources.”

After Wallace’s comment, County Judge Andy Brown, who leads the court, acknowledged the anxiety in the room, specifically over the rumor that commissioners would vote to approve the Comprehensive Facilities Plan at the end of the meeting. “We’re not going to take action on this today,” Brown assured the advocates. “There will be another day here before we vote on this. So just to let y’all know that.”

“The incarceration of our youth causes physical trauma. It causes lifelong emotional damage, no matter how many layers of the word ‘progressive’ you wrap up into your argument.” – Criminologist Jordan Martinez

Criminologist Jordan Martinez, who is against the expansion, elaborated on county data showing that two-thirds of children in Gardner Betts have experienced trauma, noting that holding kids in detention increases trauma and leads to higher rates of recidivism. “The criminological evidence is quite clear on this,” Martinez said. “The incarceration of our youth causes physical trauma. It causes lifelong emotional damage, no matter how many layers of the word 'progressive’ you wrap up into your argument .... In reality, our youth need the services outside of the carceral system in order to thrive.”

Again and again, advocates pointed out how many services – drug treatment, anger management, and family counseling, for example – could be purchased with $300 million. Many worried that if the county spends heavily on the Comprehensive Facilities Plan there will be no money left for such services, or for satellite facilities closer to Pflugerville and Manor, where many of the troubled youth live. They noted that Juvenile Probation already has two large buildings with a combined capacity of 118 beds that have housed fewer than 40 children in recent years. They asked why these spaces couldn’t be renovated to provide the facilities Juvenile Probation wants.

They complained that the Comprehensive Facilities Plan was only made public three weeks ago and the community had little advance notice of its arrival or its scope. The director of the Juvenile Public Defender’s Office, Rubén Castañeda, said that before releasing the plan, Juvenile Probation should have done more outreach with the community, including families of children in the system and members of the Commissioners Court. “Has Juvenile Probation gone to those community leaders, sat down to engage with them, said, 'What do you need? What can we do? What can we provide to help?’” Castañeda asked. “It could be something as simple as a survey.”

Adeola Ogunkeyede, who heads the Public Defender’s Office and works alongside Castañeda, compared the current controversy to the one in 2021 over a proposed women’s jail. That plan, which was projected to cost a third of the current proposal, was tanked after an outcry from many of the same advocates who spoke on June 27. “I think Travis County and this commission has already expressed these principles in prior votes on the women’s jail, saying that more buildings is not the way forward,” Ogunkeyede said. “So I ask you to recommit to those same principles here today.”

Indeed, it looks like the situation could play out in the same way. At the end of the hearing, Commissioners Ann Howard, Jeff Travillion, and Margaret Gómez – three of five commissioners – urged more discussion with community members, county professionals, and district judges before a decision is made. “One thing I really hope that we’ll do in the near future is have a meeting to talk about the philosophy of juvenile court and detention and probation so that we can have a better understanding of what our judges think is the right thing to do,” Howard said. “I mean, it is a lot of information, and I think we need to have a really good conversation.”

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