JDAI interviews Thomas Brooks

Posted November 12, 2012
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Jdai interview

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.

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