The youth sent to the Texas Juvenile Justice System are some of the most chronic delinquent offenders in the state. Ninety-three percent are boys, 79 percent have unmarried parents, 78 percent are Hispanic or African-American, 62 percent need alcohol or drug treatment, 56 percent are from low-income families, 42 percent need mental health treatment and 36 percent have been abused or neglected. And they also have really good ideas about how to improve the juvenile justice system.
In late April, a group of youth with experience in the juvenile justice system spoke at the Capitol about their recommendations to make the system more effective. The Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS), a nonprofit association of organizations that serve youth in at-risk situations, hired this team of young people who met at the Capitol every other Saturday throughout the school year to learn about advocacy, brainstorm ideas and practice public speaking. To inform their recommendations, they attended state-level policy meetings, read professional reports, interviewed practitioners involved in the juvenile justice system and surveyed their peers.
After several months of training and preparation to become advocates, the youth presented their ideas to policymakers and practitioners involved in juvenile justice at the Texas State Capitol. Their recommendations addressed topics including family conflict, law enforcement, the intake process at lock-up facilities, the court system, mental health services and re-entry services for when youth are transitioning back home:
- Offer youth sufficient opportunities to talk with their parents over the phone when they are detained, prior to a court hearing. This will give them time to resolve conflicts with their parents and help ensure their parents will support them in the courtroom and upon release.
- Youth should be provided with life skills and job training opportunities while in the system, as many face the reality of finding work difficult once they are released. As one of the young people said during a training meeting, "We don't know how to do the things that you need to know to be adults. I don't know how to write a check or talk in an interview."
- Lack of skills, coupled with returning to tough environments, are among the reasons they cite for youth returning to the juvenile justice system or to adult prison.
- Probation officers should work with youth to ensure that terms of their probation (for example, ankle monitors and meeting times) do not exclude them from participation in sports or other extracurricular activities. Those activities may be key to staying out of trouble.
- Assist youth with obtaining important identification documents and reaching milestones related to adulthood. For example, help youth complete driver's education and obtain a driver's license.
- Youth should be allowed to admit themselves into emergency shelters without parent/guardian approval.
Though common-sense, these ideas are the types that may not come to light unless the people experiencing the system actually speak up about it.
TNOYS will be working with the Austin nonprofit Media Awareness Project to get the youths' presentations on film so they can continue to share their ideas with people who were not able to attend the Capitol event. In the meantime, it's worth thinking about how many policy areas would be improved if the people experiencing broken systems were empowered to speak up.