This Budget Season, Texas Must Turn to Counties for Juvenile Justice Effectiveness

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Hot, muggy August is actually a breath of fresh air. It’s a fresh start for Texas kids heading back to school, and the beginning of the budget process for Texas agencies as they work to prepare their budget requests for the new biennium.

In particular, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has a unique opportunity for a fresh start through a renewed emphasis on county and community-based placements for juvenile offenders to put more troubled Texas youths on the right track—and this can be done even while cutting the overall size of the budget.

Multiple news reports and an internal audit this summer have detailed rampant safety issues within state lockups for juvenile delinquents. While juvenile lockups certainly cannot and should not be pleasant places to stay, they must provide a basic level of security for minors.

To the contrary, youth-on-youth and youth-on-staff assaults have been widely reported and are causing concern among Texas lawmakers. And this isn’t the first time that state facilities have engendered concern in policymakers, harkening to the dark days of the 2006 sexual abuse scandal.

Their concern is warranted due to the safety issues as well as the substantial taxpayer investment in these facilities, totaling over $130,000 per year, per juvenile offender. With that kind of a price tag, lawmakers and Texas citizens are right to expect a greater degree of proficiency in handling juvenile offenders than reports suggest. This price tag shows that while staffing and security problems in state youth lockups must be addressed, spending more money alone will not cure these ills in Texas facilities.

To achieve that proficiency, the Department should continue and reemphasize its multiyear trend of placing more juveniles at the county level, and reallocating some of the funding from the state facilities to programs and placements at the county level, and shaving the balance of the savings off the budget entirely.

Texas counties began handling increased numbers of juvenile offenders in 2007 when lawmakers placed all misdemeanants in county care, and then initiated the Commitment Reduction Program. This grant program provided funds to counties who reduced their commitments to the state and placed more juvenile offenders within their own facilities and community-based programs.

By law, these placements must cost no more than $140 per day, less than half the price tag of state facilities, and counties were required to prove the programs were effective through ongoing performance measure tracking.

In part, these community-based and county-based solutions are effective as youths are closer to their families, churches, and other sources of support that are vital to successful reentry when they leave the juvenile justice system. Results from 2010, the first full fiscal year of use, show that less than two percent of youths required state-level placement following their initial county placement, and that reductions in state commitments tripled what was otherwise possible.

Counties were able to accomplish these outcomes for juveniles even while using what a recent Texas Criminal Justice Coalition survey called “underfunded” budgets. In fact, counties run incredibly efficient juvenile operations, indicating that lawmakers can divert further funding to the counties and entrust that taxpayer funds are likely to be spent more effectively.

While there are other important priorities for the Department that can further reduce the budget – namely, reducing the length of stay for low-level youths who remain in state lockups and prioritizing comprehensive, effective reentry programs that have proven to reduce recidivism – the new budget must reemphasize the use of county placements and further diversion of funding to the counties, recognizing that in most cases public safety and offender rehabilitation can best be accomplished at the local level.

Agency staff, Texas lawmakers, and Texas citizens are weary of the problems continually plaguing the juvenile facilities. This budget process offers a way out of the problems by going back to the basics, starting with the family and community, while continuing to reduce juvenile crime and taxpayer costs.

Jeanette Moll is a juvenile justice policy analyst for the Center for Effective Justice with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.

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