Since 2009, the number of juvenile court referrals in Bell County, Texas has plummeted from 1,365 to 857 — a decrease of almost 40 percent over the last four years. During the same timeframe, the county — home to more than 300,000 people — has seen its juvenile felony cases decrease by a quarter, falling from 202 in 2009 to just 153 in 2012.
According to Judge Ed Johnson, a juvenile court judge in the central Texas county for more than a quarter century, family relationships and how communities respond to young people displaying delinquent behavior is pivotal in the rehabilitation process of young offenders.
“In the last 20 years, they have also realized that soldiers with better family lives are better soldiers, and so they have also implemented a lot of family-based programs to provide support for these young families and their children,” he told KWTX-TV.
Juvenile suspension officer Chris Dart said that the children at the Bell County Juvenile Education Center in Harker Heights typically come from troubled homes and have experienced severe abuse prior to becoming involved with the juvenile justice system.
Changing the attitudes of these young people, and demonstrating to them the long-term consequences of their actions, is the key to rehabilitating juveniles, he said.
Across the county (cities include Killeen and Temple, as well as the Fort Hood military base) Judge Johnson said that juvenile caseloads remain consistent. Recidivism rates in the area, he said, also remain low.
“About 85 percent of the kids we see once,” Judge Johnson is quoted by KWTX-TV. “We pick them up, dust them off, turn them around and send them back out in the right direction.”
“It’s the other 15 percent,” he concluded, “that make your hair turn white.”