Levin is letting the horse back in front of the cart by emphasizing building up local capacity first, since that's really a prerequisite to downsizing TYC - or whatever you call state-run youth prisons - in the long term. Merger may or may not be a good idea, but downsizing capacity without financing upgrades for locals to manage problem kids is a recipe for internecine rebellion by a variety of local systemic actors - most prominently judges, juvenile probation directors and county commissioners courts.
Although the consolidation recommendation has attracted the most attention, Sunset's proposed pilot program represents the most fundamental and welcome shift in juvenile justice policy.
The recommended pilot program would allow county probation departments to keep some of the funds that now go to incarcerate that county's youths at TYC. In Ohio and Illinois, this approach has proven to save money and reduce recidivism. Youths benefit from being closer to their families and communities, while taxpayers save because local solutions cost less than TYC. In this scenario, TYC would compete on recidivism and cost with local lockups called post-adjudication facilities run by counties and private operators, as well as non-residential alternatives such as day reporting centers. It would also eliminate the fiscal incentive to unnecessarily refer youths to TYC in order to preserve county funds.
In Ohio, this remittal of funding to counties reduced commitments to state lockups by 36 percent and cut recidivism from 54 to 22 percent. (TYC's recidivism rate is 52 percent.) Under Ohio's Reasoned and Equitable Community and Local Alternative to Incarceration of Minors (RECLAIM) funding system, judges may use the same pool of funds allocated to committing non-violent youth to state lockups for community-based options. The RECLAIM model does not cover youth convicted of the most serious violent offenses. These are actually the youths with whom TYC is best equipped and most effective to deal through its Capital Offenders Program. Ohio's success with pooling funds is not unique. A similar pilot program in Illinois called REDEPLOY reduced youths sent to state lockups by 44 percent and saved $11 million over two years.
The savings in Texas from this pilot program could be much greater. The Sunset Commission identified three TYC facilities that should be closed, each of which holds fewer than 100 youths. Shutting these units down would save taxpayers $25.4 million per year. Texas already has 32 post-adjudication facilities at the county level, costing $90 a day per youth compared to TYC's $153 per youth. In the major urban counties that account for 80 percent of TYC commitments, post-adjudication facilities could compete with TYC to attract placements.
Transparency and performance measures are critical to effective competition. Armed with information including recidivism benchmarks on each TYC and local facility, judges would be empowered to choose the best option based on outcome data for similarly situated youths.
With this pilot program, counties will be incentivized to carefully evaluate youths currently being sent to post-adjudication facilities to identify those that would be appropriate for day reporting centers. Over time, high-performing local facilities may expand to meet demand if TYC continues to produce poor results.
I don't agree with Marc that this strategy will save money in the short term and I think it's a mistake to sell the idea on cost arguments, particularly at a time when special education in youth prisons, mental health treatment and a suggested, renewed focus on re-entry/anti-recidivism programs all will require greater investment, not less.
Overall, though, I think Levin and the Sunset Commission are onto something with the pilot grant program idea for juvie probation departments. The notion is similar to the grants in the adult system that have re-invigorated probation and reduced the number of incoming prisoners. If the idea works the way they hope, it has the potential for achieving in the long term - further depopulating youth prisons - what in the short term risks creating confusion, unfunded mandates, and an unnecessary backlash.