Texas lawmakers have been working to reform the juvenile justice system since abuse scandals rocked the Texas Youth Commission in 2007. Changes to the laws that deal with young offenders have since reduced the number of juveniles sent to state lockups from about 5,000 in 2007 to about 1,400 now. More Texas youth offenders are now receiving treatment and supervision in programs based in their communities.
Now, even as Texas lawmakers face a huge budget hole — estimated somewhere between $15 billion and $27 billion — criminal justice leaders at the Capitol are considering expanding those reforms, abolishing the TYC and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, and creating a new Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Under state Plano Republican Rep. Jerry Madden's HB1915, which got a hearing in the House Corrections Committee this week, the new juvenile justice agency would have fewer youth prisons and counties would get more money to keep young offenders in their home communities to be confined and, experts hope, rehabilitated. Madden and his Senate counterpart, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, say their plan could save the state up to $150 million.
The Tribune sat down recently with national juvenile justice expert Shay Bilchik, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute to get his advice on the factors Texas lawmakers should consider as they make cuts to the budget and still continue the reforms they started in 2007. Bilchik, who was in Austin for the Barbara Jordan Symposium at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, talked about keeping youths closer to their home communities, how cuts to other areas of the budget could affect juvenile delinquency and what other states Texas could look to as examples of what works in juvenile justice.
An edited video and a transcript of the interview follow.
TT: What factors should lawmakers consider to make smart cuts to juvenile justice?
Bilchik: When I look at your current situation, where you’ve got a state agency focused on corrections and probation agencies all across the state headed by a state probation agency, I think it’s a good opportunity to kind of revisit — what’s the footprint of juvenile justice going to look like in this state. Is this an opportunity to look at changing that footprint? And what the science would tell us ... is that that footprint should be more oriented to community-based services. Now I know that in your state institution you’ve reduced your population significantly over the last couple of years. That being said, so have a lot of other states. Yet, there still are a lot of kids in those institutions. We could be looking at serving them in the local community, residential or non-residential, in a more effective manner. So I think one of the first things in a budget-cutting moment you need to do is have a lot of data in front of you. Who are these kids who are in institutions? What are their presenting offenses? What are the risks they present to public safety and the community? Public safety defined as violent offenders; public safety defined as property offenders. My guess is you probably have a lot of drug offenders still in your facilities. And what could be done to better serve those kids in the community? So this is the re-orientation going on now nationally that I think Texas can learn from. Serving kids in their local community, closer to their schools, closer to their homes. Even if they’re in a residential setting, keeping those kids’ connections in place to allow easier transitions after placement back into the community life. And that will lead us to lower recidivism rates, and more effective practice. And it will also save us dollars.
TT: How might cuts in other areas of the budget affect juvenile justice?
Bilchik: Kids become delinquent because of a variety of factors going on in their lives. In the science of juvenile justice policy and practice, they’re called risk and protective factors. And they occur in various domains of a kid’s life: their family life, their school life, their peer group, the community life, as well as in their own self. So when we think about cuts to education, cuts to mental health, cuts to substance abuse, cuts to job training, cuts to youth program development and opportunities. All of those cuts potentially have an impact on later delinquency for our young people. So if I have less family supports going on and I have a chaotic family life, then there’s a higher probability the children of that family could later become delinquent. So if part of these cuts impact our ability to prevent childhood abuse and neglect, and we know that childhood abuse and neglect is absolutely a precursor for many kids to later delinquency, we almost are predicting that these cuts will lead to later delinquency. If I diminish pro-social opportunities for kids by eliminating after-school programs, positive youth development programs, create too crowded classrooms, places that could be protective factors, now become risk factors.
TT: What other states could Texas look to as examples of smart juvenile justice cuts?
Bilchick: Well the state of Ohio is going through a process where they’re closing large institutions because they’ve done this kind of assessment of the kids who are in the institutions and what risk level they present to the community. And they’ve determined that many of them can be served better to achieve lower recidivism rates if they were put in community-based programs, again whether they’re residential or non-residential, but not in state juvenile correctional institutions. So what the state did was say, 'We’re going to start this process. As we do it, we’re going to build a stronger community structure, more community treatment programs, more after school programs.' So they worked with the courts, local probation, law enforcement, to really figure out what was needed to better serve kids closer to their home communities. So they’ve dramatically reduced their institutional population over the last couple of years, hand-in-hand with building the capacity locally. They’ve got a targeted program that helps to implement evidence-based treatment programs, run mental health and substance abuse at the local level, as well as building broader youth development help opportunities for kids who would be served closer to home. They’ve now reduced their population by more than 50 percent in the last two years, without increasing arrests, without recidivism. In fact, reducing recidivism. So I think it’s a story to be looked at.
TT: Lawmakers are considering consolidating Texas juvenile justice agencies. Any advice?
Bilchik: What you need to be careful about is somehow simply restructuring being the solution, as opposed to understanding what this new footprint for juvenile justice needs to look like and the supports that are needed to really get better outcomes for kids. So I’ve seen states that have restructured, but haven’t really infused any new resources or practices while they’ve restructured. That doesn’t get you any better outcomes. So I think the real starting point is how are you going to better serve the kids in the state of Texas and then what structure might better fit how you want to serve them. As opposed to, starting with we’re going to restructure, now how will that restructuring look to better serve kids. So people say to me, ‘What’s a better structure to have, you know, for juvenile justice in my state?’ And my answer is, there’s no magical structure. It’s always about the heart of what you do every day in preventing delinquency and if it occurs, intervening more effectively.