Texas has more prisoners than any other state and one of the highest incarceration rates in the world — but when it comes to juvenile justice, the state has become an unlikely exemplar of meaningful reform.
After examining a wide range of data over an eight-year period, a new study published yesterday by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center determined that a decline in the state's youth incarceration led to lower overall juvenile crime rates. The findings could spur Texas lawmakers to further rein in the remnants of a sprawling system, whose many now-empty cells are costly, ineffective sinkholes for taxpayers.
"Texas has one of the biggest juvenile justice systems in the country," Michael Thompson, director of the CSG Justice Center, said at a press conference Thursday morning. He noted that the center's report "analyzes the impact of juvenile justice reform in the state of Texas in both state government as well as the local government," and stressed its "national implications."
The study examined 1.3 million individual case records culled from databases spanning three state agencies, and measured the efficacy of systemic reforms enacted in 2007 against those data. According to researchers, the reforms are credibly linked to plummeting arrest rates and lower recidivism, and have helped to make the Texas juvenile system more effective.
"The findings demonstrate that the state has clearly delivered on a promise it made in making a series of reforms between 2007 and 2013," Thompson said. "Those reforms were designed to reduce the number of kids in confinement, and we've seen that those reforms, in fact, are a principle reason why the population has declined."
'The more we bring kids into a system that is not necessary, the more harm we do.'
In 2007, state lock-up facilities were mired in allegations of misconduct stemming from widespread sexual abuse of prisoners, neglected prisoner complaints, and numerous staff members found to hold misdemeanor and felony charges. In the wake of subsequent investigations, legislators closed nine facilities and implemented broad-stroke reforms, which included barring misdemeanants from being sent to state facilities, consolidating corrections agencies, and pouring millions of dollars into community programs. Youth populations in state-run facilities have since dropped 66 percent, according to the study, with juvenile arrest rates falling close to 33 percent during the same period.
Inmates kept in state facilities were meanwhile shown to be 21 percent more likely to re-offend than those kept closer to home, as well as three times as likely to commit serious crimes later on.
"The young kids who ought to be in the state facilities ought to only be those kids who cannot be managed or treated effectively outside the state system," David Reilly, director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, remarked at the press conference. "The state model we have now was developed at a different time, a different day."
While the report found that fewer state facilities and a new emphasis on sending young offenders to lower-security centers and supervision programs closer to their homes have largely paid off, some officials believe the system continues to burden taxpayers with high costs and poor outcomes.
"We're spending $130,000 a year now on each youth we're keeping in a state institution, and this report shows that's a bad investment," Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire said at the report's release ceremony Thursday. "Clearly, as these statistics show, we need to go to smaller, community-based treatment programs instead of these large state institutions for all but the very worst, most dangerous offenders."
Although counties handling more kids now have higher operating costs — about $10,000 annually per person — the report notes that because of reforms, Texas saved $150 million, much of which has been reinvested into county budgets.
The study comes as juvenile crime rates are dropping at unprecedented levels across the country, with states like Connecticut, Rhode Island, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, Arizona, South Carolina, North Carolina, and California all cutting incarceration rates by over 60 percent over the last 15 years.
"Nearly every state in the country has experienced significant declines in the number of kids it incarcerates at the state level," Thompson said.
Yet the specific reasons for the drops remain unclear.
"I think anybody who would tell you they know why they've come down would be telling a tall tale," Shay Bilchik, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, told VICE News. "But the assessment tools that are being used, and the research showing that the more we bring kids into a system that is not necessary, the more harm we do, has led to dramatic increases in cases being diverted."
As Texas enters a new legislative session, state lawmakers are looking to budget negotiations to pave the way for the continued reform of a system they say still has high arrest rates.
"We won't have just legislative meetings," Sen. Whitmire told VICE News. "I'll have working groups with directors to get their suggestions on how we go forward with lower recidivism based on the data — so I guess what I'm saying is, stay tuned, because it's a work in progress."