Remarks as Prepared
My name is Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice. I am joined by Ashley Hoff, United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas; Jennifer Lowery, Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of Texas; Nicholas Ganjei, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern Districts of Texas; and Chad Meacham, Acting United States Attorney for the Northern District of Texas.
We are here today to announce that the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a comprehensive, statewide civil rights investigation of Texas’ secure juvenile facilities. We are conducting this investigation pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Both federal laws authorize the Department of Justice to investigate whether conditions in juvenile justice institutions comply with the requirements of the United States Constitution and federal law.
Our investigation will focus on whether there is a pattern or practice of physical or sexual abuse of children in Texas’ secure facilities. We will also investigate whether there is a pattern or practice of harm as a result of the excessive use of chemical restraints, excessive use of isolation or a lack of adequate mental health services.
Children are committed to juvenile facilities like those in Texas in order to receive treatment and rehabilitation. This is the very reason that the juvenile justice system exists – to keep children out of the criminal system and to provide them with rehabilitative treatment and services instead of punishment. But all too often, children in correctional facilities, like those at issue here, are abused, mistreated and deprived of essential services. And because they are children, still growing and developing, they are uniquely vulnerable to harm and abuse inside these institutions. Being subjected to harmful conditions does not rehabilitate children – it only leads to worse life outcomes.
Children of color, as well as those with disabilities, disproportionately bear the brunt of harm caused by dangerous institutions. Nationally, Black children are over four times more likely to be incarcerated than white children. And the disparity is even greater in Texas, where Black children are over five times more likely to be incarcerated. Children with disabilities are likewise significantly over-represented in juvenile facilities.
State officials have a constitutional obligation to ensure reasonable safety for children in these institutions, and the Department of Justice is committed to protecting the rights of children who end up in such facilities. No child who is sent to a Texas facility for treatment and rehabilitation should be subjected to violence and abuse, nor denied basic services.
Based on an extensive review of publicly available information and information gathered from stakeholders, we find significant justification to open this investigation.
- Over the last few years – and as recently as last week – at least 11 facility staff members have been arrested for sexually abusing the children in their care. While persons charged are presumed innocent unless convicted, these arrests support a need for a thorough investigation.
- There are reports of other misconduct by staff members. For example, staff members have reportedly paid children with drugs and cash to assault other children. There are also reports of staff sharing pornographic material with children.
- There are also reports of staff members’ use of excessive force on children, including kicking, body-slamming and choking children to the point of unconsciousness. In an incident from last February, staff reportedly pepper sprayed a child and placed him in “full mechanical restraints,” including handcuffs, a belly chain, shackles and a spit mask, and then body-slammed him onto a bed.
We have also received information suggesting that children are not receiving adequate mental health care. There are reports of at least two possible suicides in recent years. Additionally, the number of youths with serious self-injuries in Texas’ secure facilities in 2019 more than doubled compared to the year before.
The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that children who end up in secure correctional facilities are safe and provided with the services, care and protection that the Constitution and federal law requires.
The department is likewise committed to protecting the rights of children at earlier stages within the juvenile justice system – when exercise of those rights could help steer children away from institutions that are often harsh and non-rehabilitative, and instead toward the supports and services they need to become productive adults. I’d like to highlight a few examples of how our cases have addressed systemic deficiencies at all stages of the juvenile justice system over the years:
- In Meridian, Mississippi, the department entered an agreement with the city after finding that its police department was arresting children for minor school-based offenses without probable cause, thereby helping to dismantle its “school to prison” pipeline. We believe Meridian has met the terms of the settlement and have asked the court to terminate the agreement.
- In Shelby County, Tennessee, as well as in St. Louis County, Missouri, the department entered agreements aimed at ensuring that children facing delinquency charges were afforded constitutionally required due process protections, such as access to counsel, the right to be free from self-incrimination and the right to timely probable cause determinations.
- The department’s agreements with both Shelby and St. Louis Counties also required the jurisdictions to address racial disparities in how Black and white children are treated at various points within the counties’ systems.
- In South Carolina, in another investigation involving a state juvenile justice facility, we recently issued findings that the state fails to keep children reasonably safe from harm caused by punitive and excessive isolation, as well as harm inflicted by other children.
In Texas, a team of career civil rights attorneys from the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division will be joined by career lawyers from the United States Attorney’s Offices in Texas in conducting the investigation. The investigation will be independent, thorough and fair. We have not made, and will not make, any conclusions until our investigation is complete. If our investigation reveals reasonable cause to believe there is a systemic constitutional violation, we will provide written notice to the State of Texas of the violation or violations, along with the supporting facts and the minimal remedial measures. We will seek to work cooperatively with the state to establish solutions to any problems our investigation uncovers.
To be clear, protecting the rights of children throughout the juvenile justice system is a top priority for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. We will continue to protect children from abuse and other harm in secure correctional institutions like the Texas facilities. We will also continue our work to ensure that all children are afforded the constitutional protections to which they are entitled in the administration of juvenile justice. As Frederick Douglass once observed, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
I now offer the floor to Acting U.S. Attorney Hoff who will offer remarks.