Friday, April 25, 2008

Juvie crime in Texas IS declining, but "why" is a mystery

Okay, back to the question: Is juvenile crime declining in Texas?

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 I take from this data is that Texas has done a good job reducing juvenile property crimes, but hasn't taken advantage of favorable demographic trends to encourage the same reductions in violent juvenile crime seen in other states.

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?


Anonymous said...

Do any of you geniuses think that since TYC expanded the number of secure beds from the late 90's almost three or four fold and more kids were locked up (not out committing multiple crimes) could have anything to do with it?

How about the bond money many larger counties recieved in the late 90's through early 2000 to expand their own facilities to provide secure long term residential programs instead of committing to TYC?

Could it also be that probation departments recieved funding from TJPC (Level V funds) to put kids in secure alternative placements instead of committing to TYC has something to do with it?

Let's have an honest discussion about "all" the reasons other than those politicallly correct ones.

I'm not saying.....I'm just saying.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That could have something to do with it, 4:20. But why didn't the increased incarceration reduce violent crime rates? Why only property offenses?

And why, since Texas expanded lockups more than other states, did our crime rate go down less, especially for violent and drug offenders?

I'm not saying ... I'm just saying.

I didn't cherrypick "politically correct" reasons, I listed the ones identified by the person who runs the probation system during questioning by legislators, and asked readers for additional possible causes.

Anonymous said...

Not to be argumentative, Grits, but the drastically increased number of secure beds certainly had something to do with it. That "sanction" was not even listed in your article.

TYC increased from about 1300 beds in the early 90's to nearly 5000 and county lockups increased by hundreds, if not up to about 1000 (don't have that number) surely was a factor for decreased referrals. Probably not THE factor but certainly ONE of the factors.

Since TYC is reducing capacity down to 2400 headed for 2000, we'll know before long why the decreasing referals, crime rate, etc.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

As I said, the expanded number of secure beds could explain part of it, and I'm glad you brought it up.

On the adult side, UT Prof. Bill Spelman estimates about 1/4 of crime reduction in recent years came from expanded incarceration. Researchers also say the marginal benefit of increased incarceration is much greater when total numbers are smaller, as with TYC, than in massive environs like TDCJ.

However, I'm not sure your theory explains the differential between dramatically reduced property crime and still-increasing violent crime. Nor does it explain why other states (since the crime reduction was a national trend) saw larger reductions than we did. Why is that? I don't know. You could be right, but your argument doesn't explain all the data.

Anonymous said...

Hey Grits any info on Lisa Cooke???

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You know, I don't really have anything to say about Cooke's firing, and I haven't trusted the commenters on a McFadden post to play nice. Might be a good string to create on Kidsinprison or

Anonymous said...

Doesn't appear to me that anyones stuff explains all the data.


Anonymous said...

Grits - when you use the term "juvie crime", I assume you are identifying juvies who are caught violating the law. How does all this related to the overall crime rate in this state? Up r down? As you know, the great majority of crimes committed never lead to an arrest. Don't know how anyone can extrapolate overall crimes reported rate in this state to the few that are solved. Of those not solved,who committed them: juvies or adults?


Anonymous said...

Oh - and the "word varification" thingie is not helpful when one has had a drink or two.


Anonymous said...

the decrease in property crimes could be directly related to the increase in drug and violent crimes. property crimes are boring when you get involved with using and trafficking drugs?

Locking up more kids certainly had something to do with the lower numbers, but does not explain it all.

We are not talking about kids committed to TYC. A kid committed to secure alternative placement is still probably on probation? no.

A random thought, maybe kids are sitting at home in front of their computers reading grits for breakfast, rather than out burglarizing homes.

Anonymous said...

My theory is that changes in property crime are driven by the condition of the economy. Much of our state's population increase has been due to people moving here to work and buy relatively inexpensive real estate. These aren't the people who tend to commit property crimes. There was no real change in the population of property offenders (or no real reduction in volume of crime).

Anonymous said...

Diverting misdemeanants away from TYC did not increase the number of youth being supervised on probation because they were already being supervised. Probably for 2-3 years now. I think we may see an increase in that statistic next year, as compared to the immediate increase since last September/October. That is only what 6 months ago.

Anonymous said...


We already know all about Lisa Cooke because McFadden staff have posted every juicy detail about her on this blog site for over a year now. We've all seen it, and we're all sick of it.

We get it...she got what she deserved!! Now that she's been (justly) fired, let's move on.

IMO, Grits is wise not to open that can of worms!

Anonymous said...

Well it is Girt's blog he can do what he wants. But on to the subject at hand. The Juv. crime went down because there scared if they get busted again they go to TYC and you know what those men do to those poor kids.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I've deleted a couple of off-topic comments, presumably by the same person. Complaints about comment deletion policies should be directed to

Anonymous said...


At the top of the article you define juvenile referrals as:

"...overall statewide referrals (meaning juvenile offenders sentenced to probation)"...

I just wanted to point out that a "referral" to juvenile probation is when a juvenile (according to the definition in the Tx Family Code) is arrested/charged with delinquent conduct or CHINS offense and REFERRED to the juvenile probation dept. in the county where the offense occurred.

The juvenile dept, the court and/or the local DA determine the disposition or result of that referral. Not all juvenile "referrals" are placed on probation. So, the definition you used is misleading. That number you cited may be the number of juveniles placed on probation in the state of Texas for that time period, but the actual number of "overall statewide referrals" (your quote) would be significantly greater.

There are referrals and then those referrals are assigned a disposition, one of which can be probation. I'm sure you can understand the significance of the difference.

Just thought that was worth pointing out because I'm sure you want to be accurate in what you report on your site.

Thank you.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks for the clarification. The terminology was from TJPC and I think the stats are apples to apples even if I misstated the definition.

I'm not a lawyer, and this blog must frequently walk the line between using legalese and crimjust jargon and writing for a public audience. The parenthetical description you quote was aimed at the latter, and I appreciate you making sure it's accurately understood.

Anonymous said...

Grits - "If there anything you want to know - just ask me - I'm the worlds most opinionated man......."

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Plato)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

In this post, Plato, I asked you. What's your opinion.

Anonymous said...

Well - I think the question is unanswerable, definitively. Your professor, Vicki, Lisa, and others who have posted on this thread all bring their perspective to the issue. Just because they are a professor, TJPC leaders, etc. doesn't make them or their perspective 100% correct. Can Texas' decline in rates (lesser than others) have something to do with our increases in population during the period studied? If we were gaining population, other states were losing it which might also be a factor. While I have only most of the answers, not all, I do not plan to go down the road of being so sure of myownself and my thoughts and beliefs. How's that for tap-dancing?

dirty harry said...

Maybe juvie property crimes didn't get reported with the same frequency as previous years?

Or, am I thinking way too simple here?

Anonymous said...

8:35, right on! Grits, it's important to note that the number that's declining is referrals. Especially since the number of youth under supervision (that is, actually on probation) has increased, even as number of kids referred to the juvenile justice system has decreased. So, the system's response to kids has become more formal even though the numbers of kids coming into the system has gone down.

Anonymous said...

I have a child in TYC for a 40 year determinate and I think should TYC should focus on the most violent of offenders. These are the kids we need to worry about. The dangerous of the dangerous. I have spent lots of time at TYC and most of those kids will grow out of their delinquency. They need to suffer the consequences, not be made worse, and reform is good for them. But most will grow out. What about those ones who won't? They make up an estimated 4% of the TYC population. We all ignore those cases because they are not so politically correct.

Whitsfoe said...

Who knows for sure why juvenile crime declined? We should focus on finding the answer to that question because for one kid sent to TYC, I could send that same kid to Harvard. It cost about the same.

Anonymous said...


Your are absolutely right.

The cost of not providing effective treatment will certainly cost more in the long run, in terms of costs to the community (financial, emotional, physical), legal system involvement (cost to prosecute), and costs to incarcerate(when they get arrested again for violent offenses), than a Harvard education.

The impact that turning one of these kids life around, preventing them and their children from future violence and incarceration, is worth way more than any higher education.

Anonymous said...

Austin American Statemen has done a series of articles on a TYC child that left. They follow his life after TYC. It tells the real story that is behind it all.
Good read if you have not read it.

Anonymous said...

7:09 PM You are exactly right. The value of saving a high risk youth now exceeds $3 million according to Mark Cohen at Yale.

Anonymous said...


Apologies if this question has been answered elsewhere, I'm just scanning this thread late at night.

I wonder if it would be useful to focus on the socio-economic characteristics of the juvie population, perhaps over a 10-20 year period? It seems the focus thus far has been on offense types and dispositions.

Maybe the reason for the changes you note has more to do with features intrinsic to the juvenile population.


Anonymous said...

BB- I recommend the issue brief by Butts and Snyder, "Too Soon to Tell: Deciphering Recent Trends in Youth Violence". This brief was published by Chapin Center for Children in November '06. It does a good job of identifying the factors we should track re: youth crime (not just juvenile crime).

Anonymous said...

Of course Juvie referrals have decreased. We now certify 12 year olds as adults.

Anonymous said...

The Juv. crime went down because there scared if they get busted again they go to TYC and end up at Evins in the valley. We all know what those men do to those poor kids there. Ask Joe Galloway.

4/25/2008 11:22:00 PM

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to that next post you promised grits...

Anonymous said...

still looking forward to that next post...