Monday, March 15, 2010

Challenges outlined for next Harris County juvie probation director

A Houston Chronicle op ed by Emilie Farenthold, an attorney with a doctorate in public health, identifies the challenges facing whoever is hired as Harris County's juvenile probation director after the last one was fired last fall over a highly publicized security breach. The problems are more serious, she says, than making sure the metal detectors at detention are plugged in:

The problems facing the new person are daunting, considering the makeup of some neighborhoods: In Harris County in 2006, 10 of Houston's 88 neighborhoods accounted for almost $100 million a year in prison expenditures. Half the prisoners released that year went back to neighborhoods that collectively contained only 15 percent of Houston's adult population. In these communities, the quality of schools is inferior, dropout rates are high, and a high percentage of juveniles ages 16-19 have not graduated from high school, are not in school and are not working. Poverty is concentrated in these neighborhoods; and concentrated poverty is positively related to arrest and other risks for crime and delinquency.

Another concern for the executive director lies in the causes of delinquency at the individual level. Delinquency may be viewed as a process of accumulating risks, beginning with prenatal substance exposure and continuing with abusive or neglectful parenting, trauma, academic failure, court contacts and resultant poor social functioning. Many of the risks for delinquency are the same as the risks for mental illness. The risks for mental illness also begin to accumulate in life much earlier than 14 years, the peak age of onset for any mental disorder.

Childhood mental disorders increase the risk of criminal offending, and they are common. But they are also underidentified, understudied and undertreated. Based on the findings of Operation Redirect, a 2008 initiative to identify youths with serious mental illness at HCJPD, the percentage of the population with psychiatric disorders detained by the Harris County juvenile courts is as much as 10 times the percentage in the general population.

Harris County juvenile courts received 20,885 to 24,877 juvenile referrals each year from 2005 to 2008. This tsunami of adolescents includes a disproportionately large share from ethnic minorities and the poor, who are medically underserved. Each has the right to be treated equitably.

Based on the findings of Operation Redirect, an estimated 1,500 juveniles a year with a need for substance use treatment are among those referred to the county's juvenile courts. Twenty percent to 25 percent screened by Operation Redirect were severely emotionally disturbed. These severely disturbed juveniles are likely to need both emergency and long-term mental health treatment. The new executive director will be responsible for addressing the large numbers of youths with mental disorders, including substance use disorders, referred to the courts.

HCJPD spent more than $107 million in 2008. For that sum Harris County's juvenile justice system processed 20,885 juvenile referrals, detained 6,597 youths and placed large numbers in custody, removing them from their homes and placing them in residential facilities operated or chosen by the county. Yet more than money is at stake in the selection of the executive director.

While most adolescents grow out of criminal conduct, the juvenile courts and HCJPD must correctly identify those who pose a danger to the community, those who require psychological and social services, and those who can mature without court supervision. And that's only the beginning: HCJPD's responsibility extends to effectively preventing juvenile reoffending and protecting the community on the ground.

Farenthold also hopes the new director will work to reverse trends of overincarceration:

In the past, the county treated young offenders harshly, detaining and confining a larger proportion than other Texas counties. Although Harris County contained only 16.8 percent of Texas' juvenile population, in 2006 it accounted for 35 percent of those placed in custody after a hearing, and 22.5 percent of all juveniles under supervision. Keeping them in custody is costly, averaging $240.99 a day in the U.S.

The $107 million spent in 2008 is cost absorbed only by the HCJPD and does not include the high costs of juvenile offenses to other government agencies, much less to neighbors, schools, victims, parents and the juveniles themselves. A 2009 study published in the journal Criminology found incarcerating juveniles offered no benefit to the juveniles and no reduction in reoffending

Placing juveniles in custody is risky and should not be done often, because juveniles in custody are more vulnerable to assault, suicide and sexual abuse and are more likely to commit crimes after their release than youths in the community. They're exposed to anti-social norms from serious offenders in custody and are subject to peer pressure to join gangs and adopt anti-social behavior.


Anonymous said...

Is the author related to Sissy Farenthold?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I wondered that, too. I don't know.