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National Report Validates New TX Juvenile Justice Strategy

October 4, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas - When youths act up, a new report says, locking them up usually makes things worse. The findings validate a recent turnaround in Texas' juvenile justice strategy, which now emphasizes community-based supervision and treatment over incarceration.

The report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation provides evidence - based on decades of research along with new data - that putting youths behind bars doesn't keep them from committing crimes later. It finds that the policy also does nothing to benefit public safety and wastes taxpayer money.

In most cases, says Bart Lubow, the foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group director, the "crimes" committed are minor.

"The majority are either charged with nonviolent offenses or are there primarily for acts of defiance relative to an adult."

Several states already are moving away from relying on juvenile incarceration, the report notes, and more than 50 facilities have been shut down since 2007 nationwide. That's the year Texas, in the wake of a Youth Commission scandal involving widespread sexual abuse, stopped locking up juveniles for non-felonies.

Ana Correa, executive director of the nonprofit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, recalls critics at the time arguing that the move would lead to a spike in crime.

"The sky didn't fall. And now those kids are being served in the communities."

Youth incarceration has fallen in Texas from 4,800 in 2006 to 1,800 in 2010. Still, the juvenile arrest rate did not go up. In fact, it dropped by 9 percent.

Lubow says the report urges states to adopt policies to slow the sentencing stream and invest in alternatives that focus on treatment and supervision.

"Comprehensive, well-thought-out strategies in state juvenile-justice systems that will not only ensure that there's fewer kids locked up but that will ensure that there's less crime, and less money spent, and that kids have better odds of being successful in adulthood."

Texas agencies responsible for youth incarceration and parole will be abolished Dec. 1 and replaced by a new Department of Juvenile Justice to direct nonviolent offenders to local rehabilitation services. Correa praises its mission but says it will only succeed if it is backed by ongoing state support.

"You can have a system - and you can have all of the wonderful intentions in the system - but without the funding, it's going to be extremely difficult to pull off. That's something that we still have to be very diligent about as advocates."

Correa and other reform advocates successfully pushed for an independent watchdog office as part of the new Texas system. The Casey report says that will help ensure juveniles receive fair treatment.

The full report, "No Place for Kids, The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration," is online at aecf.org.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX