Smart approach to juvenile probation would keep communities safe

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

Texas has been a national leader in modernizing our approach to juvenile and criminal justice, recognizing that the old lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality fails to keep us safer and creates more expenses for taxpayers. On the juvenile justice front, we should be proud that juvenile crime continues at historic lows and that we’re holding more youth accountable in a way that increasingly helps them stay safe and on a path to success.

As policymakers and others seek to build on this success, one of the key issues to start working on is confinement of youth on county probation.

During the past legislative session, lawmakers passed a new law, Senate Bill 1630, to reduce the number of youth that counties send to the deepest end of the juvenile justice system: state-run secure facilities. The effort includes funding for local probation departments to ensure those youth go through appropriate rehabilitation programs closer to home. The move reflects research showing that youth committed to state-secure facilities in Texas go on to commit a new offense more often than youth who receive treatment at the county level.

This effort to safely reduce commitments to state-run facilities is an important step, and I’m pleased to serve on the state task force guiding implementation of this process. But the fact is that far more youth are housed in facilities that local county juvenile probation departments either contract with or run themselves.

In 2015, 825 youth were committed to state juvenile justice facilities, compared to nearly 5,000 youth placed in juvenile probation confinement. Those numbers do not include youth held in detention while their case is processed. According to the latest data from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, youth spend an average of more than five months in juvenile probation facilities.

A probation officer unshackles a 17-year-old boy after he arrives at a juvenile detention center in Marlin in 2007.
Most of the youth who are placed in local confinement do not pose a threat to public safety. Seventy percent of the youth placed in probation facilities in 2015 were considered to have a low or medium risk of reoffending. That calculation of risk includes the possibility of relatively minor misdemeanors such as theft and possession of marijuana. These low-risk youth would be better served outside of confinement, and many of those youth with a higher risk of reoffending would also do better on supervision rather than in a facility. In fact, today there are youth considered at high risk of committing additional offenses who are placed under supervision — outside of facilities — and go on to have a clean record.

Nonetheless, we should aim to reduce the number of youth in the juvenile justice system who reoffend. That’s one of the goals motivating this movement towards reducing the number of people in juvenile and criminal justice facilities. The fact is that the experiences in costly facilities often point people in the direction of committing more offenses when they’re released, not fewer.

Indeed, in Texas county probation departments, the statistics show that youth coming out of facilities reoffend at higher rates than those leaving probation supervision.

Part of the problem is that when low or medium risk youth are placed in these facilities, they are placed with higher risk youth who can push them in the wrong direction. When youth are placed in facilities, secure or non-secure, it can also push them down the wrong path by exposing them to new trauma, pulling them away from their families, and interrupting their education.

Back in 2011, legislators put clear goals in statute for the new Texas Juvenile Justice Department to support a county-based system that reduces the need for out-of-home placements. As policymakers move Texas to this county-based system, now is the time to also move towards holding more youth accountable through community-based supervision and providing mental health treatment and other rehabilitative services in the community, rather than in costly confinement.

By reducing the number of youth in local confinement, policymakers have an opportunity to reduce crime and put young people on a path to become productive citizens.

Lauren Rose is Director of Youth Justice Policy for Texans Care for Children.