Not a Lock: Youth Who Stay Closer to Home Do Better than Those in Detention, Texas Study Shows

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A broad study of reforms in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department “puts a nail in the coffin” of the strategy of youth prisons as a public safety option, said the director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which funded the report.

Most strikingly, said Nate Balis of Casey, the report shows that youth released from a juvenile correction facility were 21 percent more likely to be rearrested than a youth under supervision of a local juvenile probation department. Also, youth released from a state facility who reoffended were almost three times more likely to be rearrested for a felony.

The study, called “Closer to Home,” was conducted by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in conjunction with Texas A&M University. It provides a detailed look at how reforms in the Texas system actually affected youth.

“I think this is really important for the field,” Balis said. “Its value will go far beyond the borders of Texas. It bolsters what academic reports already have suggested, but this looks at actual experience. This will raise serious questions about youth prisons: It is a model that is destined to fail.”

A broken system, a commitment to change

Juvenile justice reform has been underway in many states for two decades. Reports and studies during that time have shown the futility of programs of youth jails, Balis said. What sets this report apart from previous studies, he said, is the breadth of its findings, collected from 165 counties in Texas over a three-year period, and the fact that the state was so transparent in sharing its numbers.

“The report and the study behind it are a huge contribution to the field,” Balis said. “All parties involved deserve a huge amount of credit. ... This isn’t just an academic study but one that will lead to key actions.”

After abuses within the Texas system came to light in 2007, Texas leaders moved to reduce the number of incarcerated youth. They particularly aimed to move youth closer to home.

To measure how the state was doing and how young people were affected, Texas began using an information system that let it track youth referred to the juvenile justice system, whether they were incarcerated or on probation locally.

State officials collected 1.3 million records for about 466,000 youth.

Crime, reincarceration drop

A key finding was that the number of young people incarcerated between 2007 and 2012 dropped more than 60 percent, from 4,305 to 1,481. During that time, juvenile crime, as measured by arrests, dropped more than 30 percent, from 136,206 to 91,873.

While no causal connection can be established, the authors of the report cite the drop as evidence that Texans’ safety was not compromised by changes in the law.

Another important finding was that the number of youth under the supervision of a local juvenile justice probation office declined 30 percent.

Youth who were under probation supervision were rearrested three years later less frequently (64 percent) than those released from a youth prison (77 percent), the report shows.

And, youth under supervision were far less likely to be reincarcerated. The three-year reincarceration rate for these youth was 13 percent for juveniles beginning probation supervision and 44 percent for juveniles released from a state-run juvenile correctional facility.

The numbers from the report are so striking, Balis said, that it “bolsters the already overwhelming evidence that confining juveniles in large correctional facilities far from their homes is a failed strategy.”

The study also shows the importance of a data-driven approach to solving issues within the juvenile justice system, said Tony Fabelo of the Council of State Governments, the lead author of the report. With more detailed data, it is easier to see areas of concern, he said. That, in turn, can address where resources might need to be directed.

In Texas, for example, 80 percent of the funding for county juvenile probation offices comes from the county, while 20 percent comes from the state. The data reveal where counties might need more state resources or a rechanneling of the resources they already have, Fabelo said.

And while the report revealed good news, it also showed some areas that need continued attention, he said. Differences in outcomes between white and minority youth were apparent, and those merit deeper study. And, the study suggested that what works in the case of one youth will not necessarily work in another.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” Fabelo said. “There’s no one size fits all. But hopefully, there will be conversations in the Legislature, the counties themselves and juvenile justice professionals working for their own plans in improving outcomes.”

To see the full report, visit http://csgjusticecenter.org/youth/publications/closer-to-home

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