At the Houston Chronicle, Mike Ward reported (Jan. 7) from the Texas Public Policy Foundation legislative conference this week that, "After years of reforms in Texas' juvenile justice system, officials now appear headed toward the next big step: further downsizing the system of state-run lockups or even junking it altogether." The suggestion is to double down on the trend since 2007 of punishing and/or rehabilitating more juvenile felons at the local level. Notably, juvenile crime dropped precipitously during this period while the juvenile incarceration rate plummeted, calling into question any direct link between incarcerating juveniles and reducing the crime rate:
Even as Texas was reforming its juvenile justice system in recent years, the number of youths targeted for probation programs and incarceration has declined by 31 percent in six years, officials said. Fabelo said that is part of a national trend: Florida's juvenile offender numbers have declined by 35 percent, California by 48 percent.That California and Florida saw even bigger juvenile crime drops tells you this is a result of larger crime reduction trends, not necessarily any specific Texas policies. But it does present an opportunity to shutter more and perhaps even all the state's youth prisons.
While the state-run youth corrections system held more than 4,200 offenders seven years ago, the number is now down to about 1,000 in five lockups.
"That's where it's heading, yes, to counties keeping more youths in local programs, even some of the ones who are in state custody now, and to more outcome-based programs," said Tony Fabelo, a national criminal justice expert overseeing the national study by the Council of State Governments.
Citing statistics from the soon-to-be-released report that tracked more than 220,000 juvenile offenders for up to five years, Fabelo said Texas spent nearly $134,000 a year per youth held in a state juvenile lockup in 2012.
"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, noting that statistics show 85 percent of the incarcerated youths are arrested again within five years - and 54 percent of those are sent to adult prisons.
"Fifty-seven percent of the population (in state youth lockups) are adults" aged 17 or 18, most of them locked up for serious felony crimes, he said. "That says a lot about why changes are needed."Grits cautiously supports further downsizing, especially if the money follows the kids downstream. Long-time readers will recall that a "blue-ribbon panel" created by the Legislature after the 2007 sex scandals recommended (pdf) "using a regionalized system of care that supports the use of small facilities, that admits youth to TYC using research-based risk assessment and classification, and that provides specialized treatment for youth and families." If that's where this ends up, then better late than never.
One caution: I for one don't have a good sense of what exactly is happening with kids diverted from state facilities in recent years and there don't seem to be good benchmarks to let us know whether the locals are generating better outcomes than the state on education, recidivism, protecting kids from predators (whether staff or other inmates), etc.. For example, there's no independent entity comparable to the TJJD Ombudsman to whom kids in county detention can bring problems or from whom they can seek redress. There's a chance that the big-picture juvenile crime decline - which again, I don't think was caused by Texas-specific policies - could be masking poor outcomes. State institutions have been studied nigh unto death - and perhaps Fabelo's new study will be the fatal blow - but it's not clear to me we can say that the county-run lockups are superior, just that they're a) cheaper and b) out of sight, out of mind.