JDAI interviews Thomas Brooks
Chief Juvenile Probation Officer
Harris County (Houston), Texas
Casey: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Brooks: I graduated from Michigan State University in 1982. I have been with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department since 1983. I began as a childcare worker at the Harris County Youth Village. I was appointed deputy chief of Intake Court Services in March 2007, interim chief juvenile probation officer in 2009, and chief juvenile probation officer on June 15, 2010. I was responsible for the implementation of several new programs: institutional aftercare, in-home placement, pre-court supervision, to name just a few. Most recently, I have been instrumental in initiating the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. I have been married to my wife, Judy, for 27 years. We have a daughter, Taylor, who is attending the University of Houston.
Casey: Why did you become a probation officer?
Brooks: I knew when I enrolled at Michigan State University that I wanted to work with children. It has always been a passion of mine to help children and give them direction in life, especially those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Having the opportunity while in school to be a mentor for a youth involved in the juvenile justice system was very challenging, yet satisfying, and led me to a career in juvenile justice.
Casey: In what ways has juvenile detention reform shaped you professionally?
Brooks: I have been with Harris County Juvenile Probation for more than 28 years and saw that the get-tough-on-crime and zero tolerance approaches, which resulted in locking up more kids, was not an effective way to get positive results. I have found that being effective involves addressing the individual needs of every child and providing services that keep kids at home, in school, and involved in the community. As chief juvenile probation officer, my efforts are to promote community involvement and utilize effective programs.
Casey: How have your opinions on detention changed over the years?
Brooks: In the 1990s and early 2000s I was one of those believers that if probationers were not compliant they needed to be placed in detention and removed from the home (i.e. tough on crime). After seeing the constantly overcrowded detention facility, we decided to take a closer look and make sure that only those who needed to be in detention were kept in detention. I then began to explore detention alternatives.
How has Texas changed as a result of juvenile justice reform and/or detention reform?
In 2007, the Texas legislature enacted a bill prohibiting misdemeanant offenders from being committed to the state school. In 2009, the Texas legislature appropriated diversion money to local probation departments that agreed to specific commitment target numbers which reduced the number of kids committed to the state school. This has resulted in a significant decrease in commitments to the Texas Youth Commission statewide.
Casey: How has Harris County changed as a result of being a JDAI site?
Brooks: Through the collaboration of high-level stakeholders throughout Harris County, many profound policy changes have occurred. A detention risk instrument has been developed to objectively determine which youth should stay in detention pending court. The District Attorney’s Office now allows first-time misdemeanants to be serviced by the probation department without formal court action.
A detention self-inspection has revealed numerous areas of concern, and now changes have occurred. The daily detention population, the number of youth in county facilities, and the number of commitments to the state school have decreased significantly.
Casey: To what do you attribute the success of JDAI in Harris County?
The stakeholders of Harris County coming to the table with different perspectives and ideas, but with everyone being focused on saving one child at a time.