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​Is Texas About to Abandon its Juvenile Justice System?

A new study is expected to result in further cutbacks to the state's juvenile detention facilities, and could even spur lawmakers to abandon their reliance on the system entirely.

av Alex Mierjeski
2015 01 26, 9:30am

Photo via Flickr user Randall Pugh

Texas has a problem with kids: It can't figure out a good way to lock them up.

Following a series of high-profile physical and sexual-abuse scandals that rocked the state's juvenile system in 2007, a string of reforms modernized local punitive measures against offending young people. The state has dramatically reduced both the number of juvenile lock-up facilities and the number of kids serving time inside them.

Now a new study is expected to result in further cutbacks—and could even spur lawmakers to abandon their reliance on the system entirely.

The study, conducted by the Council of State Governments (CSG), digs into the efficacy of costly state-run programs, recidivism rates, and county-based alternatives. Although it's not slated for release until the end of the month, the report is already sparking fresh talk of restructuring youth incarceration programs across the Lone Star State.

Back in 2007, after it was revealed that unchecked physical and sexual abuse by prison officials had run rampant in Texas youth facilities, the entire system was poised to crumble. Reports that followed illuminated a system Swiss-cheesed with nasty problems: Staff members had felony arrests and convictions, hundreds of physical and sexual abuse charges had been filed, fights among inmates abounded, and attempts to investigate allegations had been thwarted at multiple levels for years. In one instance, a high-level prison official allegedly used candy and cake to lure inmates into sexual encounters.

The sweeping reforms that followed resulted in the closing of many state facilities and the release and relocation of thousands of youth inmates to county-run lock-ups closer to their homes. Agencies in charge of juvenile justice, including the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, were dismantled and subsumed into Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Ultimately, the state legislature moved towards evidence-based solutions, shrinking and tailoring the system by redrawing laws to exclude misdemeanor offenders from automatically being sent to state lockups, and giving $100 million to more cost-effective community-based rehabilitative programs. According to a brief by the Pew Charitable Trusts, by 2013, nearly $143 million had been redirected from secure facilities to localized programs for offenders, and the population of secure residential facilities plummeted 62 percent. Statewide, juvenile arrests fell by 27 percent. Amid all this, no notable decreases to public safety were noted; the reforms, by most measures, were working.

The average number of offenders locked up on any given day was cut from over 4,000 in 2007 down to less than 1,500 today, yet what's left of the old system still produces undesirable results.

Speaking at a Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) panel earlier this month, Tony Fabelo, a national authority on criminal justice and an architect of the forthcoming CSG study, cited numbers outlining the burdens of an antiquated system for Texas taxpayers. "In 2014, the 800 youth who were committed to (state lockups) cost $162 million, enough to educate almost 20,000 students for a year," he said. Of those that are incarcerated, 85 percent are arrested again within five years, with over half of them subsequently funneled into adult prisons.

According to Fabelo, the problems caused by lingering structural outcroppings of a much larger system are multifaceted––an inevitable outcome of systemic reforms. "The numbers of youths incarcerated have declined significantly, [and] the system was not designed for the low number of youth that we have," he told me in a phone interview last week. "[T]he costs are pretty high per kid, [and] the configuration of the whole system doesn't lend itself to any good results in terms of safety within the facilities, in terms of ability to deliver recidivism reduction-type of programs, and in terms of maintaining staff where they have a very high turnover rate."

But given that high-ranking lawmakers were present at the panel two weeks ago, there's reason to think actual changes might follow the study's release.

Though Texas, with its penchant for executions, isn't necessarily the first state that comes to mind when people think of progressive changes to the criminal justice system, it has been surprisingly near the front lines of reform in recent years. Specialized drug courts, a reenergized parole system, and better reintegration programs have moved the state away from the vanguard of the last century's prison-industrial complex excesses. Tackling what's left of a pernicious and costly edifice, then, seems like a no-brainer.

Speaking over the phone last Wednesday, Republican State Representatives James White said lawmakers "need to make sure that we have a juvenile correction system that's focused on not just locking up, but lifting people up and getting them rehabilitated so they'll be effective citizens in our constitutional republic.

"The question is, are we really returning to the taxpayer the type of benefit and return-value that they deserve?"

Thanks to bipartisan support from a diverse array of lawmakers and interest groups, juvenile justice in Texas is poised to see yet another overhaul. The question is what, exactly, it will look like.

"We want to make sure that the taxpayer is getting the most bang for their buck, that public safety is preserved, and that, in the case of juveniles, that [offenders are] getting the rehabilitation that they need," said Derek Cohen, a policy analyst at the conservative-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice. "That's a difficult three-part mandate, but it would be something that we generally orient towards."

In a broader national context, new reforms in Texas fall nicely into place. Thanks in part to research showing that juvenile incarceration tends to do more harm than good, as well as lower overall crime rates, juvenile arrests dropped 48 percent from 1997 to 2011. In that same period, some 46 states reduced commitment rates for juveniles.

According to Donald Ross, a manager for the National Campaign to Reform State Juvenile Justice Systems, the shift is as much empirical as it is logical. "What is happening is that there is a realization that, number one, the harsher punitive measures aren't really working," he told me. "Two, they're very expensive and it's not really producing results that do anything other than say, 'Well, you did something terrible, so you're going to spend the rest of your life in jail.' It doesn't make much sense."

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