A Texas Community Builds a Better Juvenile Justice Option
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.
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.”