I'd posed the query upon learning that, contrary to official projections, the total youth on probation in Texas remained flat after changes in the law last year redirected repeat juvenile misdemeanants away from the Youth Commission. Through excellent reactions from commenters, listening to additional legislative testimony from officials, a conversation with a TJPC lawyer, and a review of documents submitted along with recent legislative testimony, I think I can hazard an answer:
Yes, juvie crime is declining. The bigger question is "why?" Even more importantly, "what can be done to encourage the trend?"
This decline didn't just begin last year. According to Texas Juvenile Probation Commission director Vicki Spriggs' testimony to the Senate Finance Committee this week (April 22), from 2001 to 2007 overall statewide referrals (meaning juvenile offenders sentenced to probation) decreased by 10%, though the state's juvenile population increased by 6% over the same period.
Mostly this reflects a dramatic drop in juvenile property crime. Spriggs' handout to the committee revealed that although the overall number of juvenile referrals declined 10%, referrals for violent offenses increased by 4% from 2001-2007, and the number of drug offenses increased by 7%. (Said the handout: "Referrals for a violent felony offense accounted for 5.6% of total referrals in 2000 compared to 6.4% of total referrals in 2007.") By contrast, referrals for juvenile property crimes declined a whopping 25% over the same period.
Reduced juvenile crime rates over the last 10 years track national trends, Spriggs said, and are not specific to Texas. I found this interesting, data-filled public policy report [pdf] from 2006 analyzing reasons for juvenile crime reductions in California, which has experienced even more dramatic crime reductions than Texas and has its lowest juvie crime rate in 30 years, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Indeed, over the same period other states saw actual reductions in violent crime, whereas in Texas the increase was merely lower than the population increase - still a positive step, but for whatever reason we're not seeing as much reduction in violent crime as other states.
It's difficult to prove why something doesn't happen, or as Spriggs told Senate Finance, "It's hard to track kids who don't show up," meaning no one really knows why fewer kids enter the system. Since it's difficult to say exactly why these reductions are occurring, let's start by excluding hypotheses that don't explain the facts.
It's not the case that the data reflect more youth being certified as adults. Spriggs told Senate Finance that the number of kids certified as adults increased from 42 in the Jan-Mar '07 to 65 over the same period in '08. That's a significant increase, one that's likely a direct reaction by judges to changes in SB103 to Texas' determinate sentencing law. But it doesn't explain the scale of the aggregate changes. More than 40,600 youth are on probation in Texas statewide, so 100 fewer per year would barely amount to a blip on the statistical radar screen.
It's not a result of TYC's administrative decision to release offenders earlier. That's happening, but it wouldn't impact probation caseloads since those youth would be on parole, not probation. Similarly, a commenter wondered if changes in the law regarding 19-20 year olds with determinate sentences might affect the number, but the changes did not affect juvenile probation, which only runs through age 18.
It's also not a problem with bad data, TJPC attorney Lisa Capers assured me, declaring the agency is confident in local data because most counties scored highly on a recent audit of their data reporting systems. She said juvenile probation data collection was far superior to what she'd seen in adult systems (which wouldn't take much). Certainly the overall total count should be correct and comparable year to year.
Speaking to Senate Finance, Spriggs rightly dismissed the 'soft on crime' explanation, declaring that "law enforcement is not more tolerant" of juvenile crime, and that "schools are not more tolerant." Reinforcing her point about schools, Spriggs supplied the committee with data showing that referrals by schools to "JJAEPs" or "alternative education" programs increased by about 8% from the '03-'04 school year to '06-'07, even as criminal referrals declined over the same period.
The majority of youth sent to JJAEP were "discretionary" referrals, meaning they were expelled based on the school's own authority, not because of a statutory requirement. Of mandatory expulsions during the '06-'07 school year, 57% were for drug offenses according to data provided to the committee.
So schools face more disciplinary problems, but the courts see less. That's an odd conundrum. I wonder what's the relation between those stats?
Spriggs told the committee she couldn't completely explain the overall decline in probation referrals. Part of it, she said, was that in the past 13 years counties developed new infrastructure to handle most juvenile cases in the community, and I agree the importance of this relatively new development cannot be overstated.
Though TYC has 2,300 youth felons incarcerated, according to TJPC attorney Lisa Capers the counties handle about 18,000 felons through community based programs at any one times. These are kids who could be sent to TYC, but judges assign them to community based programming instead that's managed by the probation department.
Spriggs also suggested that many believe there's a "generational" aspect to juvenile crime, that the current crop of youngsters, for cultural and demographic reasons that aren't immediately identifiable, just aren't committing crimes at the rate occurring 15 or 20 years ago. I'm sure she's right such factors explain a large portion of the decline.
So what can we conclude from this discussion:
- Juvenile crime rates in Texas are declining overall, but especially property crimes.
- Violent crimes and drug crimes continue to increase, but at rates equal to or lower than the state's increase in juvenile population.
- Diverting misdemeanants from TYC did not result in the expected boost to local probation caseloads.
- Juvenile crime reductions partially result from a national trend, not per se from Texas' policies.
What do readers think of these explanations? And why do folks think the reduction in property crimes has been so dramatic, even as violent and drug crime continue to rise?