Local juvenile probation departments are doing a better job and spending less money than state lockups when it comes to treating and rehabilitating troubled youths, according to a report released Wednesday by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. But the report’s authors say that counties need more money and more oversight from the state to ensure the progress continues.
“These county programs are doing a lot of really innovative things,” said Benet Magnuson, policy attorney at the criminal justice coalition. “They are doing it on shoestring budgets, and they are really finding ways to connect kids to community resources.”
In 2007, following reports of physical and sexual abuse at some of the state’s secure youth facilities, lawmakers began overhauling the juvenile justice system. In the years since, legislators have continued the reforms with the goal of keeping more youths in community programs close to their homes instead of sending them to far-flung state facilities. The population at state facilities has dropped precipitously, from about 5,000 in 2006 to fewer than 1,200 now. The state shuttered facilities, and now only six of the original 15 institutions remain open.
As reports of renewed troubles at the remaining state facilities — this time violence perpetrated by youths on one another and on staff — have developed in the last year, advocates expect lawmakers to continue efforts to keep juveniles away from state lockups. To maintain effectiveness, though, the report warns that funding for county programs, and particularly for mental health treatment, must increase.
“We have to get more funds to these community programs, and we have to increase oversight to protect youth in facilities,” Magnuson said in a news release. “If we do that, we’ll have the best juvenile justice system in the country.”
The counties implemented a variety of alternatives to detention programs that kept youths out of facilities and saved millions of dollars.
Commitments to state secure facilities fell in Harris County from 630 youths in 2006 to only 96 youths in 2011. In Dallas County, commitments dropped from 320 youths to only 100 youths during the same period, according to the report.
At the same time, the report said, the average daily population in Harris County’s secure detention decreased from 257 in 2007 to 194 in 2011. In Dallas, the daily detention population fell from 308 to 215 during that time.
Vikrant Reddy, a policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin think tank, said the report echoes findings from a study his group did last year, which found that the crime rate among youths declined along with the incarceration rate.
In August 2011, the TPPF reported, 9.1 percent fewer criminal cases were pending against youths compared with August 2007, and the juvenile arrest rate dropped significantly from 2007 to 2009.
“Programs for juveniles are better handled at the local level than the state level,” Reddy said. “They do all of it while spending less money.”
While county programs are improving the outcome for many youths, the criminal justice coalition reported serious concerns about the prevalence of mental health issues and trauma among youths.
A third of youths supervised by county probation departments have a confirmed mental illness, according to the report, and more than half of youths in the juvenile justice system have experienced significant trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse.
County juvenile probation chiefs ranked mental health services as the highest need for increased funding at their departments, according to the report.
“I don’t think anybody who even has a cursory awareness of who these kids are and who their families are would say there isn’t a high prevalence of mental health issues,” said David Reilly, chief probation officer at the Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department.
As legislators have moved to keep more youths in their home counties, they have also provided money to care for them. Reilly said he and other probation chiefs fear that the pendulum will swing the other direction and funds will begin to dry up.
“We hope that sense would prevail, that it’s something we need to keep growing, not reducing,” he said.
The report also urged state policymakers to implement more oversight of county probation departments.
“Some counties are doing a great job, which shows it is possible,” Magnuson said. “And there’s a great opportunity for [the Texas Juvenile Justice Department] to provide guidance to make sure all counties are operating at that level.”
In county juvenile facilities, according to the report, Texas youths were physically restrained 5,333 times and placed in seclusion 37,071 times in 2011. The coalition also found wide variation among the counties’ policies regarding the use of seclusions and restraints, which can be particularly problematic for youths with mental illness and trauma. But Magnuson said the current auditing system does not adequately ensure accountability.
“It makes a lot of sense to keep strong oversight of them,” Magnuson said. “No facility is perfect.”
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, an architect of the juvenile justice reforms, said it’s a “no-brainer” to continue and even expand county programs that are working. And he said the state’s existing policy of allowing the funds to follow the youths, whether they are sent to the state or to a local facility, is likely to continue.
As for calls for additional oversight of county facilities, Whitmire said, the status quo is fine.
“There’s plenty of overview and accountability by the state,” he said. “It sounds like they’re just looking for an issue.”
When lawmakers come back to the Capitol in January, Whitmire said he hopes to see the trend of keeping youths in their home counties continue. Juveniles who enter the justice system mostly come from urban areas, where they have better access to the mental and physical health and educational resources they need to get and stay out of trouble, he said.
In fact, Whitmire said, the population at state facilities has dwindled so far that three of the remaining six lockups could likely be shuttered. Dozens of beds in those facilities are currently unused because counties are doing a better job with the youths under their supervision.
“It’s just nuts that we’re currently running facilities way short of capacity for the sole purpose of continuing the economic impact of those facilities,” he said.