By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications

Leah O'LearyTJJD staff at secure facilities and halfway houses strive to help youth make better decisions and correct poor behavior. But, as at any place with troubled teens, some incidents require further discipline.

The staff and youth need to know that youth aggression and misbehavior will not be overlooked, and that youth will be held accountable.

Recently, Leah O’Leary joined TJJD as a staff attorney and the due process supervisor, charged with overseeing and improving Level II hearings. These are the forums in which staff review and adjudicate serious disciplinary violations that happen in TJJD facilities.

“My role was created to fill a need for the agency,” O’Leary said. “My directive was to evaluate the processes and implementation of the processes and figure out what problems exist. We have a huge backlog of major allegations that have not had hearings. We have hearings that are not happening in a timely manner.”

Assault, upon one another or members of the staff, is the most common major violation. Others include being disruptive, sexual misconduct, and possession of a weapon.

“An allegation is not enough,” O’Leary said. “We want to make sure the incident actually happened, and that the youth is given due process before we impose any kind of consequence.”

Level II hearings are confidential. In attendance will be the youth, the hearing manager (who acts as the judge), the staff representative (who acts as the prosecutor), the advocate for the youth (they can push back on any evidence, question witnesses, explain what's happening to the youth to make sure they understand), and any witnesses who need to testify.

“During a hearing, if an allegation is proven true, a disposition will be issued, which is the consequence,” O’Leary said. “It might be a loss of privileges or a referral of that youth to a program in the violence continuum. The consequence goes into effect immediately. The youth can appeal, but if the appeal says that the finding was correct, that major violation becomes part of the youth’s disciplinary record.”   

Anyone who completes Level II training can be an advocate. The youth can request a particular advocate, such as a juvenile corrections officer. “Ideally it’s a case manager, but it’s important that it be someone the youth trusts,” O’Leary said. Level II training certification is a 90-minute online course that takes place on the TJJD training portal.

O’Leary, a native Texan from Laredo, attended the University of Texas for undergrad and went to law school at St. Mary’s in San Antonio. She worked at the Texas Attorney General’s office, as deputy chief of the law enforcement defense division for 11 years. “In that division we only represent law enforcement agencies and their employees when they are sued,” she said. She represented TJJD for two years during the ongoing Department of Justice investigation of possible youth rights violations.

“I spent a lot of time at all the facilities,” she said. “I got to know the general counsel really well, I got to know the executive director really well and also some of the executive team. I really liked the culture and the direction the agency is going, and I really liked the agency’s purpose.”

O’Leary has spent several months evaluating the Level II system.

“I’m always looking for ways to make things more efficient. Hiring more hearing specialists is one of the immediate things that we can change.”

The biggest concern she has faced has been trying to ensure that the hearings take place in a timely fashion. This can be difficult when some facilities have been short-handed on staffing and a large number of alleged incidents have occurred.

If too much time elapses between an incident and the hearing, “accountability can be lost because the youth aren’t always going to be able to take accountability for something they did a month ago,” O’Leary said. “In order to teach accountability those hearings really have to happen on time.”

When hearing specialists are overwhelmed with filed allegations, the Level II process can be challenging and procedures may suffer.  

“There’s also a need for additional training of the existing hearing specialists,” O’Leary said. “I’ve gone out to the facilities and observed hearings and watched the process. It’s different at each facility, which is fine, but it requires some brainstorming on how to make the process more efficient for these facilities. The training is something I need to offer more of as more specialists are hired, because if the specialists don’t really have a fundamental understanding of what the process looks like, the result can be hearings being overturned on appeal. While I’m not going to overturn something because of a minor paperwork mistake, if a paperwork mistake or a process mistake is so egregious that due process was not provided to the youth, then it has to be overturned.”

“A lot of youth don’t have the basic skill of understanding cause and effect; that behavior equals consequence. That’s what accountability means to me in this process. A youth can know that they engaged in a certain type of behavior they shouldn’t have, but they’re never going to internalize and learn from it and take accountability if they don’t feel like they got a fair shake. If they don’t feel like the process was fair to them, they will never learn from their behavior; they will never take accountability.”

O’Leary further explained the other fundamental function of Level II hearings is to enhance safety and security. The staff need to trust that the Level II process will hold youth accountable for aggression and misbehavior. 

While improving the implementation will always be ongoing, O’Leary believes in the in the Level II program. “The process really does a good job of protecting youth rights and making sure that they get a fair shake,” she said. “It’s a tool that helps youth, even if youth aren’t always happy about it. Skill-building and accountability are important parts of their rehabilitation.”