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Nation’s Leading Juvenile-Justice Reformers Gather in Texas

April 24, 2012

HOUSTON - Some 700 of the nation's top juvenile-justice reformers are gathering in Texas this week to share strategies for reducing the number of troubled youths who wind up behind bars. With several recent studies confirming that problem kids tend to do better when they're not sent off to institutions, participants at the conference want to speed up the trend toward community-based solutions.

Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is hosting the Houston gathering, says just locking kids up mostly doesn't work.

"Our reliance on incarceration is a failed policy. It doesn't work for the kids; it doesn't work for public safety; it doesn't work for taxpayers, because it's enormously expensive."

The Casey Foundation has teamed up with jurisdictions in 32 states to help implement alternatives to so-called "zero-tolerance" policies that focus on youth detention. Harris and Dallas counties are participating in Texas. Community-based rehabilitation is one of the goals of the state's new Juvenile Justice Department.

The conference will highlight Houston's de-emphasis on incarceration during the past few years.

Tom Brooks, who directs the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, says 690 area youths were sent to "state school" in 2006, compared with only 97 last year.

"I think we're able to achieve that by providing individual programs, getting out in the community, working with the families, dealing with individual needs, engaging different community providers to do wrap-around services."

Statewide, the number of juvenile offenders behind bars has dropped from more than 4,000 in 2006 to around 1,400 now. While Brooks believes it is sometimes appropriate to lock up juvenile offenders, he thinks jurisdictions should ask questions first.

"Are they locking up the right child? What is the reason you're locking that child up? And make sure that all the alternatives are being provided and looked at, because if you lock them up and just let them go without any services, chances are it's going to be a revolving door and they're going to be right back."

While Brooks praises the last Legislature for encouraging probation departments to rehab kids locally, he says more funding is needed to pay for programs. Spending more up front on youth services, he adds, is a proven way to save money in the long run. When kids are locked up they are significantly more likely to re-offend after getting out, according to recent research.

A report on recent research is at www.utexas.edu.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX