Williamson County Juvenile Services to expand facility, grow key programming

The Williamson County Juvenile Services department is preparing its facility for the future while trying to better the future of those it serves.

The county is planning to increase capacity at the Juvenile Justice Center by 42 beds with the addition of a new 69,000-square-foot, two-story space. Currently in the design phase, the expansion will allow for greater separation of the individuals it houses, Juvenile Services Executive Director Scott Matthew said.

“What we’ve found in the last 20 years is when you’re working with kids that have a lot of trauma and struggle to regulate their behavior, the more kids you have in one area, the more difficult that becomes, the more chaos there is and the harder it is to really get them some treatment,” Matthew said.

The addition can be used for both pre-adjudication and post-adjudication. It will also allow for one-on-one supervision, which Juvenile Services staff do not have the ability to do. These plans are part of the county’s goal to address continued growth in the area, and Matthew said the center’s intakes have increased.

Meanwhile, Texas lawmakers in recent years have discussed raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18.

“I think that’s something that the state will be looking at in the future, once we’ve strengthened the juvenile justice system,” Matthew said. “Right now, the juvenile justice system, the mental health system and the child welfare system are all struggling.”

So far, the county has allocated $35 million for the project, county Public Affairs Manager Connie Odom said.

However, before dirt work can begin, the county must finish a project behind the juvenile facility, as the property is located on a floodplain. Once a channel is dug, which the county set aside $5 million for, the county can authorize a groundbreaking, Matthew said.

With an increase in the number of young people going into the juvenile justice system, Matthew said the Transformative Justice Program should reach 150 participants by May. As of mid-November, 95 people have gone through the program.

The Transformative Justice Program is meant to keep youth charged with nonviolent felonies from reoffending.

With grant funding from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission set to run out in May, the county was able to secure a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to continue the program for another three years. Through it, Williamson County provides mental health services, life skills education and training to offenders ages 17-24.

“So now with this grant, they are requiring that we accept any participant who is willing to go through and qualifies for the program, which is what we wanted to do anyway,” Matthew said. “For the first grant we received, we had to do a randomized control trial. So certain people just got randomized out that could have really benefited from the program.”

As part of the aversion initiative, case managers, counselors and attorneys work with individuals to address their substance abuse issues, education challenges and housing concerns as well as provide help finding employment. The program, which takes 10-18 months, allows participants the chance to have their charges dismissed and their records expunged.

The Transformative Justice Program also seeks to reduce the recidivism rate.

“We’ve got a lot of things in the works,” Matthew said. “Hopefully, we’ll just keep growing stronger.”

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