Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Creating a Stronger, Safer Juvenile Justice System

By Frances Deviney

Texas’ juvenile justice system is necessary and critical for protecting our citizens and helping to rehabilitate troubled youth. Unfortunately, it has not done either very well in recent years.

Last year, reports of physical and sexual abuse of youth in custody by Texas Youth Commission (TYC) staff rocked the state, shedding light on Texas’ troubled juvenile justice system and prompting Texas to make much needed improvements.

The state immediately jumped into action after the scandal. In response, the legislature authorized increased training for juvenile corrections officers, greater oversight for the entire juvenile system, and in an effort to further reduce the strain on the system, prohibited future incarceration of youth for misdemeanor offenses.

In addition, the Texas Youth Commission created a special Blue Ribbon Task force whose recommendations included placing more emphasis on preventing children from entering TYC; increasing parental involvement throughout the juvenile justice process; and providing specialized programs to treat drug abuse and mental health problems which plague more than one in three youth in Texas custody.

Although these were important first steps to reforming Texas’ beleaguered juvenile justice system, a new report reveals that more work is needed.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Book, released last month, Texas was in the top third of states with the highest rates of youth ages 10-15 in custody at juvenile justice facilities in 2006 (136 of every 100,000 Texas youth). In 2007, Texas began addressing their over reliance on incarceration by releasing youth in custody for misdemeanors and prohibiting future misdemeanor incarcerations. There are still areas where incarceration policies and procedures are still highly questionable.

For example, Texas must reduce the number of youth involved with the adult corrections system (TDCJ). In 2006, more than 700 Texas youth ages 15 to 17 entered adult prisons. Although the number may seem small, the practice is problematic. Research finds that youth tried as adults go on to commit more violent crime and more crime overall than youth with similar offenses who remain in the juvenile system. In 2003, 47 percent of Texas youth released from adult prisons were rearrested within three years compared to only 27 percent of adults released from prison. Unfortunately, Texas’ recent changes have only increased the number of youth going to adult prisons by reducing the age TYC youth can be transferred to TDCJ from 21 to 19.

We also must take vigorous action to reduce the persistent overrepresentation of youth of color in our juvenile justice system. In Texas, youth of color are twice as likely to be in custody as white youth. However, national studies repeatedly find that youth of color do not commit crimes at higher rates. Texas should review underlying biases and promote practices that equalize treatment.

Past improvements made to Texas’ juvenile justice system in the wake of the Texas Youth Commission scandals were necessary and critical. Texas should continue its commitment to our youth, not only by preventing future abuse, but by drawing upon additional data, local recommendations, and best practices to create a stronger and safer juvenile justice system that sets youth up for future success, not failure.
Deviney is Texas KIDS COUNT director at the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Texas Lone Star Forum. 7/08

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