SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) — In San Marcos, two kids in the Hays County Juvenile Detention Center are on their second month of waiting to be transferred to Texas Juvenile Justice Department state schools.

They and more than 100 other minors are supposed to be starting their court-ordered rehabilitation and treatment programs on TJJD campuses.

Instead, the agency is scrambling to develop and start treatment for kids stuck in 43 local juvenile detention facilities scattered across the state while it works to fix crippling staffing shortages on the state level.

The agency’s Director Shandra Carter announced June 29 it would temporarily not be able to take any of the youth awaiting transfer to TJJD.

The department has let some minors into the facility since. This week, the agency had 135 youth on the waitlist and said it will likely have 126 minors still pending at the week’s end.

In a letter, Carter said she was concerned about providing “basic supervision” to the youth already in their custody, some of whom are experiencing “increasing suicidal behaviors,” the Texas Tribune reported.

‘The impact on juvenile justice is enormous.’

Kameron Johnson, Travis County Public Defender

The state’s juvenile justice department has also had to cut its own treatment programs, including one aimed at the facilities’ most violent youth.

Getting youth help while waiting

Some county detention facilities are faring better than others. According to TJJD, larger counties like Harris, Denton and Bexar County told the agency they would help youth start treatment while at their local detention facilities.

But that is not the case in smaller, more rural counties and even some in urban cores.

The 114-bed Hays County Juvenile Detention Center is currently only capable of caring for a little more than 30 minors at a time due to staffing, according to Administrator Brett Littlejohn.

“We do not have access to those programs here,” Littlejohn said. “Now, we do have certain services here — minimal.”

Officials with TJJD said Wednesday all minors on the waitlist for state facilities will get credit for time spent waiting in local detention facilities.  

But for most of the minors on the waitlist, their time in state custody and release is entirely dependent on their progress through the agency’s treatment programs.

The agency is struggling to implement that in every county impacted. 

“The nature of that work can be highly variable and individualized, depending on the child and the capacity of the detention center,” department spokesperson Bobbi Kessler said. “County detention centers are, in some cases, struggling with the same staffing shortfalls that have afflicted TJJD.”

TJJD officials said they are trying to assess minors while they are still on the waitlist, so they can start their treatment programs as soon as they are transferred to one of the state facilities.

‘This shouldn’t be happening

Kameron Johnson, Travis County Juvenile Public Defender

Travis County Juvenile Public Defender Kameron Johnson worries how those on the waitlist facing the harshest sentences will be affected when they are considered for release.

He’s particularly concerned with those on the waitlist with determinate sentences, which allow them to start their time in the juvenile system and then be considered for adult parole at age 19, instead of transferring to the adult prison.

“Imagine if you got a 16 or 17 year old and you are talking about six months to a year where you can’t even get into a program,” Johnson said. “When it comes time to be able to see and look whether you’ll be released to adult parole or to the institutional division, you know — prison — then the court has less to work with.”

“They also are in school and have access to services at the county level while awaiting transfer to TJJD. Their cases are being reviewed while they’re on the intake list, and their behaviors and progress recorded,” TJJD spokesperson Bobbi Kessler pointed out.

Lawmakers consider solutions

Another concern shared by juvenile probation officers in the state is if the waitlist and ongoing staffing problems on the state level will impact how minors are sentenced in the state.

“If it continues on, or if it becomes a political issue and it drags out session to session, it’s not going to be good,” Littlejohn said. “You are going to have kids probably instead of getting committed to TJJD, all of a sudden certified as an adult and you are going to clog up that side of the house — right, wrong or otherwise.”

The number of juveniles who are sentenced as adults in Texas has not changed significantly since 2011, according to data from the Office of Court Administration.

The Interim House Committee on Justice Reform heard from the agency and local probation officers about the ongoing issues with the waitlist in late August. The committee’s chairman said he talked to Gov. Greg Abbott about ways to intervene before lawmakers convene in January.

“My hope is it will be a major item in the session we can address immediately,” Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, said. “But even between now and the next session, the next four to five months, we have options. We have available tools at our disposal to devote more resources to make sure our staffing issues are fixed.”