|ALAMO, December 1 - Children between ages 10 and 17 have spent nights at Hidalgo County’s juvenile detention center in overcrowded, deplorable conditions.
Since May this year, the Mario E. Ramirez Jr. Juvenile Justice Center, which only has the capacity for 96 juveniles, has exceeded its capacity on more than a dozen occasions, including nights when children had to sleep on the floor. These inhumane conditions are contrary to Texas law and the U.S. Constitution.
Recent reports have highlighted the Center’s overcrowding problems. Publicly available documents indicate that the Center exceeded its capacity on thirteen occasions since May 2013, including several nights when it held over 100 juveniles, and, on one night, as many as 110. Most detained teenagers are there for minor, non-violent offenses. This is utterly unacceptable.
Detaining teenagers in these conditions is contrary to state law. The Texas Administrative Code requires juvenile detention centers not exceed their rated capacity, that individual sleeping quarters contain a bed above floor level, and that each juvenile be provided suitable bedding.
It is also contrary to the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution requires special consideration for juveniles in the criminal justice system based on their age; and, in the well-known case of Ruiz v. Estelle, other federal courts chastised the overcrowding of Texas prisons.
The reasons for the consistent overcrowding at the Ramirez Juvenile Center are varied, but some are easy to fix. For instance, the 449th District Court, one of the primary courts overseeing juvenile detention in Hidalgo County, has reportedly seen repeated delays and lack of basic judicial diligence. This is an unacceptable waste of taxpayers’ resources: not only is it a dereliction of a public official’s duties, but it also leads to higher incarceration of our County’s youth.
The judges’ expeditious review of cases involving potential juvenile detainees this week should ensure that only those juveniles who truly must be incarcerated end up in the detention center. In addition, as noted by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the appropriate use of personal bonds for low-risk, non-violent first-time offenders can reduce drastically the number of juveniles who remain at the detention center.
Contrary to some opinions, increasing the size of the detention center is not the solution. The center was expanded almost four-fold as recently as 2007, and overcrowding continues. Further, expanding the center only would lead to more incarceration. The solution, rather, should be to decrease the number of incarcerated juveniles by efficiently using available resources and avoiding unnecessary delays and wasteful practices.
When it comes to investing in our youth, taxpayers’ money should go to building more and better schools and providing community support services, not expanding jails and detention centers.
Our state’s juvenile justice system suffers many ailments, but the conditions of juvenile detention in Hidalgo County are simply unacceptable. As the Juvenile Board of Judges meets this week to review the issue of overcrowding at the Ramirez Juvenile Justice Center, it should consider that current judicial practices have resulted in children being held in awful conditions. These children are the driving force of our cities, our state, and our country. Let’s ensure our public officials set their priorities straight and do their job to keep our children in school and out of jail.
If the judges don’t act, we will have to.
Jaime Ortiz is co-director of the South Texas Civil Rights Project. The mission of the group is to promote racial, social, and economic justice through litigation, education, and social services for low/moderate-income persons least able to defend themselves.