AUSTIN (KXAN) — Meme Styles watched her three brothers cycle through the criminal justice system starting at a young age.
“Since we were teenagers, since we were kids, as a matter of fact,” she said. “In many cases, these are youth that maybe just need that support of their community, or if their father is not there, a mentor to step in and say, ‘I do care.’“
She and other advocates are especially worried about how kids detained in the juvenile justice system will stay safe during this pandemic.
On March 27, groups like MEASURE, Texas Appleseed, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and Lone Star Justice Alliance wrote a letter to Travis County judges and officials outlining concerns about the health of young people in the youth justice system, due to the threat of COVID-19, and several possible solutions.
Thursday night, they held a live web conversation with leaders from the city of Austin and Travis County Officials.
- Watch the full webinar here.
“Of course, the kids would be at a high risk of catching the virus because of the density of the population,” Senior Lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs Michele Deitch said
Deitch offered up some “best practices” for youth detention facilities to reduce the spread of the virus, including more soap, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies for living areas and more frequent laundry access. While difficult on the young people, she also urged the need to suspend family visitation and volunteer programs to limit traffic from the outside.
Along with that, she emphasized the need to test and screen staff.
KXAN got a tip a Travis County Juvenile Probation Office employee had tested positive for COVID-19.
The county could not confirm this, but during this webinar, members of the Public Defenders office said that was true.
Panelists said they weren’t aware of any kids who had tested positive, but added that widespread testing was not available or being done.
Deitch said the main concern was reducing the number of young people coming in “the front door” and being detained.
Kameron Johnson, Travis County Juvenile Public Defender said he’s been working around the clock with the District Attorney’s office to get as many young people released as they can.
He said the Juvenile Detention Center usually averages about 35 young people, but as a response to the pandemic, they’ve gotten that number down to 15.
Assistant District Attorney Rickey Jones said their policy right now was to release all non-violent juvenile offenders.
“I’m erring on the side of letting them out, as opposed to keeping them locked up,” Jones said.
In most cases, they can go home to be with family. They have had challenges finding a place to go for a few kids in CPS custody.
“We didn’t want to release them to the streets,” Jones explained.
They are also working to keep arrests at a minimum.
Styles said she hopes these policies will stick around past the response to COVID-19.
“Why can’t we maintain that as a new normal? Why can’t we shift the resources that would be going to incarcerating and jailing kids, to community based programs that support the root issues that kids are facing?”
She went on to say their main priority is “a child’s ability to thrive in a welcoming and safe home,” especially during this pandemic.