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Could New Texas Juvenile Justice Department Become National Model?

October 3, 2011

HOUSTON - Just a few years ago, the Texas juvenile justice system was plagued by scandal and systemic child abuse. Now it's poised to become a national model. A transition team appointed by Gov. Perry recently started the process of abolishing two agencies overseeing youth incarceration and parole.

Houston Sen. John Whitmire authored SB 653, the legislation replacing them with a new Juvenile Justice Department. Its mission, he says, recognizes that the once-common practice of sending away nonviolent offenders to be locked up alongside hardened criminals was not only expensive, it was failing to make communities safer.

"They actually became better criminals; more dangerous because of who they associated with. It's just being smarter to avoid that."

Whitmire says there will always be a need to confine violent youngsters in secure facilities, but the majority who get in trouble will be better off staying close to home, receiving services tailored to their needs.

"Most of the youths in our juvenile justice systems are non-violent but have heavy use of drugs and alcohol, and major mental-health issues. So, we're better off to find them the services they need. And they'll be kept in their communities, where they'll get better education."

Pointing to recent national studies touting the advantages of community-based supervision, treatment and rehabilitation, Whitmire says other states will be watching the Texas developments closely, with an eye toward reforming their own systems.

Lauren Rose, a mental-health fellow with the public policy organization Texans Care for Children, agrees, but she warns now is a critical juncture for the new department. She says the transition team should not focus merely on the administrative task of merging the Youth Commission and the Juvenile Probation Commission.

"If they look at their role as just making sure they keep the lights on, they're not really helping us move toward meaningful reform. What I hope they'll do is set short-, medium- and long-term goals that will bring better outcomes."

Rose is part of a juvenile justice "roundtable" monitoring the transition. Members have signed onto a list of "guiding principles" for reform, which include continuing oversight and evaluation of the state's juvenile justice institutions. The new department will officially start operating Dec. 1.

The "guiding principles" are available at http://texanscareforchildren.org/Juvenile-Justice-Roundtable.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX