Closer to Home: An Analysis of the State and Local Impact of the Texas Juvenile Justice Reforms

A first-of-its-kind study of Texas youth involved with the juvenile justice system shows that juveniles under community-based supervision are far less likely to reoffend than youth with very similar profiles who are confined in state correctional facilities.

Tony Fabelo, Nancy Arrigona, Michael D. Thompson, Austin Clemens, and Miner P. Marchbanks III | January 2015 | Council of State Governments Justice Center and The Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University

Closer to Home: An Analysis of the State and Local Impact of the Texas Juvenile Justice Reforms, which draws on an unprecedented dataset of 1.3 million individual case records spanning eight years, shows youth incarcerated in state-run facilities are 21 percent more likely to be rearrested than those who remain under supervision closer to home. When they do reoffend, youth released from state-secure facilities are three times more likely to commit a felony than youth under community supervision.

The CSG Justice Center unveiled the report on Thursday, January 29, 2015, in a packed room of the Texas Supreme Court, alongside Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who also serves as chair of CSG, Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, and a number of others.

“The extraordinary data compiled for this study demonstrates convincingly how much better youth—who prior to the reforms would have been incarcerated—fare instead under community supervision,” said Michael D. Thompson, director of the CSG Justice Center. “It also finds that for those youth placed under community supervision, there is still considerable room for improvement.”

The number of incarcerated youth has decreased by more than 40 percent across the nation—with some state populations declining by as much as 80 percent—since 2000, when the number of juveniles incarcerated was at a record the U.S.

“We’ve seen remarkable reductions in the number of youth confined to state-secure facilities,” Sen. Norris said, whose home state of Tennessee showed one of the top five largest declines between 1997 and 2011. “But as Texas has shown, it’s important for us to understand why the decrease occurred, and what is happening to those kids who have gone into community-based supervision.”

After a number of abuses were uncovered involving youth incarcerated in state facilities, Texas state leaders enacted a series of reforms between 2007 and 2013. State leaders argued that many youth were incarcerated unnecessarily, and that supervising and providing treatment to juveniles closer to home, instead of shipping them to far-off correctional facilities, would produce better individual outcomes and save taxpayer money without compromising public safety.

The result has been a dramatic decrease in the number of youth in state-secure facilities, with a 65-percent reduction between 2007 and 2012, according to the CSG Justice Center study, cutting hundreds of millions in state spending and reinvesting a large portion of those savings into county-administered juvenile probation departments. During the same time period, juvenile arrests also declined by 33 percent, a significant drop compared to the 2-percent decline over the four years prior to 2007 reforms.

“Texas has demonstrated it is possible to achieve reductions in crime while reducing the number of youth incarcerated,” said Sen. Whitmire. “Prior to the reforms, youth were placed in facilities and essentially put on a path to the adult prison system. They were exposed to violence, disconnected from their families, and offered few rehabilitation options. Now, we need to take additional steps to make sure we are doing everything we can to support youth under community supervision to help them become successful adults.”

The report found substantial evidence that counties could lower recidivism rates further by doing a better job applying the latest research, such as assigning youth to the right skill-building, treatment, and surveillance programs and providing appropriate levels of supervision.

“Neither poor matching of high-risk youth with inappropriate programs nor over-programming youth with minimal needs does much to reduce the likelihood of a young person reoffending, and could actually have the unintended consequence of increasing the likelihood of rearrest,” said Dr. Mark Lipsey, a national expert who directs the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University and advised the team on the study’s methodology along with Dr. Edward P. Mulvey, professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

In a closer examination of eight large Texas counties, the report found 298 of the 300 programs mix youth of different risk levels. Between 34 percent and 90 percent of youth who are considered to be at low risk of reoffending were placed in one or more programs, despite only a small fraction of these youth having a high need for such programs.

“The findings in this study and the extensive dialogue we’ve had with the CSG Justice Center will provide support and guidance as we look to further improve operations and outcomes for juvenile justice youth served in the community,” said Randy Turner, Director of Juvenile Services in Tarrant County.

David Reilly, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, said this report sets the stage for Texas’s juvenile probation departments to partner with state policymakers and other juvenile justice stakeholders to continue progress in this area.

“We’ve come a long way already,” he said. “Now, we need to continue to reduce the number of youth in state facilities and further refine our partnerships with local probation departments to achieve better outcomes for youth while continuing to maintain public safety.”

Closer to Home: An Analysis of the State and Local Impact of the Texas Juvenile Justice Reforms was developed in partnership with Texas A&M University and funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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