A Texas Community Builds a Better Juvenile Justice Option

Posted February 9, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Two people grasp arms just beyond their wrists; one arm shows a tattoo.

In Har­ris Coun­ty, Texas, local jus­tice offi­cials and a coali­tion of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers have been busy devel­op­ing an inno­v­a­tive approach to pub­lic safe­ty and juve­nile jus­tice. The approach — designed with the com­mu­ni­ties most affect­ed by incar­cer­a­tion — is called the Har­ris Coun­ty Youth Jus­tice Com­mu­ni­ty Rein­vest­ment Fund.

The initiative’s evo­lu­tion is the sub­ject of a new report pre­pared by Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty’s Jus­tice Lab with fund­ing from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A New Option for Reduc­ing Juve­nile Incarceration

Har­ris Coun­ty, the nation’s third-largest coun­ty and home to Hous­ton, began trans­form­ing its approach to juve­nile pro­ba­tion in 2019.

This trans­for­ma­tion, con­duct­ed in part­ner­ship with the Casey Foun­da­tion, required close col­lab­o­ra­tion among the county’s juve­nile pro­ba­tion depart­ment, juve­nile court, coun­ty judge’s office, dis­trict attorney’s office and sev­er­al com­mu­ni­ty groups. The goal? Invest in com­mu­ni­ty-based pro­grams that help reduce youth jus­tice involve­ment, address jus­tice sys­tem dis­par­i­ties and con­nect young peo­ple to the ser­vices and oppor­tu­ni­ties they need to thrive.

Watch: Com­mu­ni­ty-based youth devel­op­ment in Wash­ing­ton State

Hen­ry Gon­za­les, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Har­ris County’s juve­nile pro­ba­tion depart­ment, says the fund will help his team work with com­mu­ni­ty groups in a more robust and stream­lined man­ner and increase com­mu­ni­ty capac­i­ty to help more Black and Lati­no youth stay on the right track.”

With the arrival of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, offi­cials fast-tracked the fund’s devel­op­ment to help advance anoth­er pri­or­i­ty: min­i­miz­ing COVID-19-relat­ed health risks for youth in secure confinement.

Approved with bipar­ti­san sup­port from coun­ty lead­ers, the fund — the first of its kind in Texas — was launched in 2022 with an ini­tial com­mit­ment of $4 mil­lion. It was built on pre­ex­ist­ing reform efforts, includ­ing Casey’s Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive® and its work to sig­nif­i­cant­ly and safe­ly reduce youth incar­cer­a­tion and help front­line staff.

The coun­ty select­ed Change Hap­pens, a non­prof­it based in Houston’s Third Ward, as the fund’s inter­me­di­ary to pro­vide grants and oth­er ser­vices to local providers. Groups of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and young peo­ple advise the fund.

We are excit­ed about the invest­ment in our com­mu­ni­ty and grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions,” says Tiffany Echevar­ria, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Col­lec­tive Action for Youth. Echevar­ria, whose orga­ni­za­tion is host­ing the fund’s youth advi­so­ry board, rec­og­nized the county’s will­ing­ness to con­sid­er young people’s input dur­ing the initiative’s devel­op­ment and ear­ly implementation.

Four to sev­en youth-serv­ing non­prof­its will receive grants from the fund in 2023.

Juve­nile Jus­tice Rein­vest­ment Lessons

Although the fund is just get­ting off the ground, its evo­lu­tion offers learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for sim­i­lar youth jus­tice rein­vest­ments in oth­er juris­dic­tions. These lessons include:

  • Start with clear­ly defined goals and a com­mu­ni­ty-informed process dri­ven by data and values.
  • Build in mean­ing­ful oppor­tu­ni­ties for youth and adult com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers to help guide implementation.
  • Edu­cate every­one involved or affect­ed on both oper­a­tions and expect­ed outcomes.
  • Com­mu­ni­cate suc­cess­es, chal­lenges and lessons in real time.
  • Estab­lish process­es to mea­sure, mon­i­tor and eval­u­ate the fund.
  • Lay the ground­work for sig­nif­i­cant­ly scal­ing the fund.

The cre­ation of the rein­vest­ment fund is an impor­tant step in Har­ris County’s jour­ney, full of inspi­ra­tion and learn­ing for the field,” says Danielle Lipow, a senior asso­ciate with the Casey Foun­da­tion. Among the fund’s great­est lessons are the impor­tance of clear­ly defin­ing an over­all goal and build­ing com­mu­ni­ty inclu­sion into the fab­ric of the fund itself.”

Learn how two JDAI® sites accel­er­at­ed youth jus­tice reforms dur­ing the pandemic

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