juvenile justice is at another crossroads due to a projected state budget shortfall of $10 billion to $15 billion.I'd recently mentioned the case of a teen graffiti writer who was sent to TYC and victimized to the point where he chose to spend his stint in solitary confinement rather than subject himself to abuse by fellow inmates. That's the harsh reality behind Levin's technocratic observation that "lower-risk youths are negatively influenced by higher-risk peers" when imprisoned. Had the graff writing youth not chosen to spend his term in isolation, it's likely his only other option would be to turn to other criminal youth for protection, developing negative relationships that often lead to more serious criminal involvement on the outside
Counties also face budget shortfalls, with Harris and Dallas asking departments to identify savings. Counties fund nearly two-thirds of juvenile probation. Thus, a strong fiscal partnership between the state and counties is vital to ensure that youths are not sent to TYC simply because less costly and often more effective community-based options are unavailable.
Texas can continue saving money and protecting public safety by renewing support for probation departments’ TYC diversion initiatives that more than pay for themselves as they enable TYC to continue downsizing.
For example, intensive in-home programs with both a probation officer and family therapist making frequent home visits significantly reduce re-offenses and cost a fraction of TYC. As such local programs take root, juvenile crime continues to drop and TYC commitments have fallen 38 percent this year. Every youth redirected from TYC saves taxpayers about $80,000 a year.
For all but the most serious and high-risk offenders, incarceration often increases re-offending, as lower-risk youths are negatively influenced by higher-risk peers and positive bonds with their family, church, and community are frayed. While effective in-home programs address the lack of discipline and other underlying family issues typically at the root of delinquency, these problems may remain unsolved after a non-violent youth stays for an average of 11 months at TYC and returns to the same setting.
Texas has made remarkable progress in lowering juvenile crime while reducing costs. Policymakers can build on these gains for public safety and taxpayers by continuing to strengthen community-based programs that hold juveniles accountable through proven supervision and treatment strategies, ensuring that the most costly destination for Texas youths is truly the last resort.
Levin is essentially advocating the same shift in thinking that former House Corrections Chairman Ray Allen recommended during the 2003 budget crisis: That Texas should incarcerate only people who we're afraid of, not those we're merely mad at, using community based interventions and short-term incarceration stints to teach good behavior instead of merely punishing mistakes.
For a lot of offenders, incarceration isn't pleasant but it isn't that difficult. Somebody else feeds, clothes, shelters you and tells you what to do and when to do it essentially 24-7. Much harder, for many, is learning to live productively in the free world (which is why quite a few offenders choose incarceration over accepting restrictive probation terms), and at some point they must learn how. Those are lessons prisons cannot teach. For juveniles, in particular, most all of whom will return to their communities relatively soon, that logic resonates even more strongly.