Jessica Cervantes hit the streets this summer with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) Houston District Office, which is the state’s juvenile parole agency. She monitored and helped youthful offenders in the communities where they live, work, and go to school.
As an intern with the TJJD Houston, Cervantes traveled throughout the region – from Galveston to Lufkin -- to visit juveniles released from state juvenile facilities. Mirroring six parole officers, Cervantes went to homes to visit juveniles and their parents, checked in on them at work, or visited their schools during their initial 90-day parole period. She talked with juveniles to make sure they were complying with rules, but also to help them develop plans to succeed in the future and to help identify programs and services the families may need.
“It reassured me that I want to work in this field,” said Cervantes. “I feel they are young and a lot of them made mistakes because they were lacking a positive role model. I want to be that positive role model. I’m graduating from college, and it’s possible for them to do it too.”
During the first 90-days on parole, juveniles are assessed to see if they are meeting discharge requirements, such as providing 60 hours of community services; participating in 40 hours a week of productive activity such as work or school; and adhering to curfews, ranging from 7 to 10 p.m. Juveniles also are subject to random drug testing, and some are required to wear ankle monitors. The system is set up with graduated rewards or disciplinary hearings for those who fail to comply with their conditions of parole.
For Cervantes, the most important part of the visit is talking with juveniles about how to stay away from criminal activity and to assist them in finding a road to success. Sherrell Kivumbi, the Houston District Office family and community relations coordinator, said that, fortunately, Cervantes is Spanish speaking and has spoken to family members who were limited in English; she says the families appreciated an opportunity to really explain themselves in their colloquial.
“Most of the officers try to help,” Cervantes said. “We don’t want to see them fail. We ask them about their week and what they did. We ask them to identify their goals, which may be getting a car, a driver’s license or their GED. We have a work force specialist that helps them look for jobs, helps them with resumes, and interviewing skills. Parole officers and family liaisons also identify resources for families, which may include Medicaid, counseling, drug counseling and rental assistance, mentors, and more."
“Most of the kids follow the rules,” said Cervantes. “We had more positive discharges.”
Before juveniles are released from state facilities, parole officers are required to make home assessments to determine if parents want their children to return or if the home environment is appropriate. The juvenile offenders come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from elaborate homes to one bedroom crowded apartments housing families with seven children. The offenses that the youth were adjudicated for are all felonies, ranging from aggravated burglary to capital murder.
“For the most part, parents are very supportive and they really love their kids,” said Cervantes. “For many kids, this is a mistake that they have made, but most people hear felon and they don’t want anything to do with them.”
Cervantes said the internship taught her to be tough but fair.
“I like the firmness, but not being too firm,” Cervantes said. “You want to care for the kids, but you are not their friend. They are really good at manipulation. But you talk to them about their day and some of them want to go to college.”
As part of her internship, Cervantes went to local juvenile detention centers to read juveniles their rights before their parole was revoked. Although the office was in Houston, Cervantes traveled all over Southeast Texas to visit her clientele, including Lufkin, Huntsville, The Woodlands, and Galveston.
Cervantes frequently used lessons she learned at Sam Houston State University during her internship. Some courses she took showed the differences in handling adult and juvenile offenders and that many of these juveniles had suffered abuse and neglect. A course in interviewing and counseling taught her how to talk to juveniles by understanding who they were and their backgrounds. She also was able to tell juveniles about the difference between detention center and adult prisons based on the tours she took in her corrections class.
Cervantes graduated in August and already has applications out to work in the field.