Under Gov. Rick Perry, Texas’ juvenile justice system has seen a dramatic transformation from a system plagued by a sexual abuse scandal to one of the most progressive systems in the nation, say long-time advocates in the state. Texas, one of the country’s most conservative states, succeeded in reforming the system by finding a common goal for both the left and the right, even if they took different paths to get there.
“In Texas,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, “we have been lucky to have a very conservative organization,” the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), “advocate for many of the same juvenile justice reforms that organizations like [progressive] Texas Appleseed advocate for.”
A combination of factors led to the bipartisan reforms in a rare confluence of fiscal conservatism and the more liberal focus on rehabilitation instead of incarceration.
Just six years ago, the Texas Youth Council (TYC), which oversees the state’s youth detention facilities, was facing hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse and neglect by facility administrators, employees and correctional officers. Gov. Perry placed the TYC into a conservatorship just over a month after the first reports of abuse were published by The Texas Observer.
Soon, the Texas Legislature was closing detention facilities and moving funds for juvenile justice back to the local communities while focusing on rehabilitative programs. In the six years since the TYC was rocked by scandal, the number of juveniles in TYC custody has dropped from 5,000 to 1,400, according to The Houston Chronicle, all while the overall juvenile crime rate in Texas has fallen.
Texas is also facing a $27 billion shortfall for its biennial budget. This gap has forced lawmakers to make dramatic and difficult cuts across the budget. In the juvenile justice system that meant the closing of more youth detention facilities, placing more of the burden on local communities to find solutions most of which centered on rehabilitation.
Mark Levin is a director of the Center for Effective Justice at TPPF, the conservative think tank advocating strongly for juvenile justice reform in Texas. According to Fowler, Levin has been instrumental in “changing the way conservatives think about policy surrounding criminal justice and juvenile justice initiatives.”
“And it’s based on sound fiscal policy,” Fowler said.
However, she added, Levin and TPPF’s focus is on how policy impacts kids, but only to the extent that it makes communities safer. Levin is now taking his “reasoned approach” to juvenile justice with TPPF’s “Right on Crime” intiative.
In May, legislation was passed that would combine the TYC with the other half of the Texas juvenile justice system, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission. The new combined agency, the Texas Juvenile Justice Commission (TJJC) is tasked with maximizing community-based programs. Three more detention facilities will be closed as part of that legislation. The new program costs less per child and, because of it’s community focus, is better at rehabilitation. Once again, the right can claim a victory for fiscal responsibility but the left can justifiably claim a victory for rehabilitation.
“It got so much support because it makes so damn much sense," Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, a sponsor of the bill, told the Houston Chronicle.
With Gov. Perry recently announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president, many are looking back at Perry’s 10-year record as governor. With the Texas juvenile justice system taking large strides how much credit should Gov. Perry be given?
Gov. Perry “was not an obstacle to juvenile justice reform,” said Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a group advocating for reform across all areas of criminal justice.
“The proof of his commitment will be in is appointment to the board [of the TJJC],” Yanez-Correa said.
Fowler, of Texas Appleseed, said, “I think he’s made a big difference to the extent that he has allowed himself to be persuaded. That, to me, indicates that he is slightly pragmatic in his response to some policy initiatives and he can be persuaded to do something that is a little bit different than what Republicans were talking about 10 years ago.”
Texas’ juvenile justice system is getting national attention with Gov. Perry’s presidential run and Levin’s conservative “Right on Crime” program. Only time will tell if other states will follow suit and join the right and left in juvenile justice reform.