Taking Stock of the Texas "Closer to Home" Study: Ten Lessons for the Juvenile Justice Field

Posted January 29, 2015
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog Taking Stock Of Texas Study 2015

The Coun­cil of State Gov­ern­ments (CSG) Jus­tice Cen­ter has released a ground­break­ing report that pro­vides impor­tant insights to guide the next steps the nation’s sec­ond-largest state can take toward reform­ing its juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. The report, Clos­er to Home: An Analy­sis of the State and Local Impact of the Texas Juve­nile Jus­tice Reforms, not only has great val­ue in the Lone Star State. It also deliv­ers impor­tant lessons to the juve­nile jus­tice field in com­mu­ni­ties across America. 

From my perch at a nation­al foun­da­tion with a long­stand­ing focus on juve­nile jus­tice reform through­out the Unit­ed States, that is my pri­ma­ry inter­est: What are the nation­al impli­ca­tions of this research for the juve­nile jus­tice field? Fol­low­ing is my attempt to answer that ques­tion, focused on 10 key takeaways.

  1. The CSG Clos­er to Home report shows that dra­mat­i­cal­ly decreas­ing the pop­u­la­tion of youth con­fined in state juve­nile cor­rec­tions facil­i­ties is good pub­lic policy.

    CSG found that Texas youth released from state insti­tu­tions were: 21 per­cent more like­ly to be arrest­ed with­in 12 months than com­pa­ra­ble youth who remained under the super­vi­sion of coun­ty pro­ba­tion depart­ments and three times more like­ly to face felony charges if arrest­ed. These find­ings were con­trolled for offend­ing his­to­ry, demo­graph­ics and oth­er rel­e­vant fac­tors. CSG reports that the aver­age cost of a stay in state cus­tody exceed­ed $200,000

    Texas is not an anom­aly. These results con­firm the already over­whelm­ing evi­dence that in vir­tu­al­ly every recidi­vism study, the vast major­i­ty of youth released from large, state-run cor­rec­tion­al insti­tu­tions are re-arrest­ed with­in two or three years of release, and one-third or more are re-incar­cer­at­ed in a juve­nile facil­i­ty or adult prison. Research also con­sis­tent­ly finds that state-fund­ed youth cor­rec­tions facil­i­ties are dan­ger­ous, unnec­es­sary, obso­lete and inad­e­quate to the seri­ous men­tal health, edu­ca­tion­al and social ser­vice needs faced by many court-involved youth.
  2. The CSG report shows that con­trary to com­mon­ly held fears, there is not a sub­stan­tial pop­u­la­tion of super-dan­ger­ous youth beyond the capac­i­ty of coun­ties to supervise.

    CSG found no dif­fer­ence sta­tis­ti­cal­ly between the pop­u­la­tion of youth com­mit­ted to state-run secure facil­i­ties and those placed under the super­vi­sion of their coun­ty juve­nile pro­ba­tion depart­ments. Youth com­mit­ted to state cus­tody look no dif­fer­ent than many of those who are kept in their com­mu­ni­ties,” CSG com­ment­ed. This tends to sug­gest that many more of the com­mit­ted youth could just as suc­cess­ful­ly be reha­bil­i­tat­ed under the super­vi­sion of the coun­ty juve­nile pro­ba­tion department.”
  3. More­over, the report shows that although plac­ing youth into local res­i­den­tial facil­i­ties is prefer­able to incar­cer­a­tion in state facil­i­ties (or even worse in adult pris­ons), it is a poor invest­ment of tax­pay­er dollars.

    Adjust­ing for offense his­to­ry and oth­er vari­ables, CSG found that youth placed into coun­ty-fund­ed res­i­den­tial facil­i­ties did no bet­ter (and often worse) than equiv­a­lent youth who were allowed to remain at home. In fact, while the result was not sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant, CSG found that the best out­comes were achieved by youth placed into non-res­i­den­tial pro­grams focused on skill build­ing. On aver­age, coun­ty-fund­ed res­i­den­tial place­ments cost twice as much as the mean among all youth placed under coun­ty super­vi­sion (rough­ly $15,000 vs. $7,300). Remov­ing young peo­ple from their homes should be the excep­tion for court-involved youth, not the routine.
  4. Clear­er state rules and direc­tion are need­ed to encour­age more invest­ment in effec­tive non­res­i­den­tial programs.

    As it reduced the state cus­tody pop­u­la­tions and closed sev­er­al state facil­i­ties in recent years, Texas has sharply increased state sup­port to coun­ty pro­ba­tion agen­cies – pro­vid­ing more than $140 mil­lion in new state fund­ing from 2007 to 2013. How­ev­er, Texas allo­cat­ed the bulk of these funds with few strings attached, and CSG reports that coun­ties have spent most of the new mon­ey on res­i­den­tial facil­i­ties rather than non-res­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ty ser­vices. This trend is wor­ri­some and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive – an indi­ca­tion that state lead­er­ship is required to steer coun­ties toward best prac­tice and away from over­re­liance on res­i­den­tial placements.
  5. The key to suc­cess for local juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems does not lie in more pro­grams alone, but rather in more cal­i­brat­ed, more con­sis­tent deci­sions in the han­dling of indi­vid­ual cases.

    Expe­ri­ence shows that, in the absence of com­pre­hen­sive sys­tem reform, more and bet­ter pro­grams are not the solu­tion to the chal­lenges of juve­nile jus­tice – even when pro­grams are well-designed and well-inten­tioned. Rather, suc­cess requires a coor­di­nat­ed sys­tem that places the right youth into the right pro­gram (or no pro­gram) for the right rea­sons, a sys­tem char­ac­ter­ized by col­lab­o­ra­tion, effec­tive use of data, care­ful atten­tion to research and results and vig­i­lant atten­tion to racial and eth­nic equity. 
  6. For the very small num­ber of youth who require a peri­od of res­i­den­tial cus­tody, long stays in cus­tody are unnec­es­sary and wasteful.

    CSG data showed that over­all re-arrest rates were low­er from coun­ty fund­ed res­i­den­tial facil­i­ties than from state facil­i­ties and felony recidi­vism and sub­se­quent incar­cer­a­tion were dra­mat­i­cal­ly low­er. Yet, the aver­age length of stay was just 3.5 months for youth in coun­ty-run secure care facil­i­ties and 4.1 months for non-secure facil­i­ties, com­pared with an 18-month aver­age for youth incar­cer­at­ed in state-run juve­nile facil­i­ties. This result cor­rob­o­rates the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Path­ways to Desis­tance” study and the Nation­al Acad­e­mies of Sci­ence, both of which found that longer peri­ods of con­fine­ment do noth­ing to improve recidi­vism out­comes for incar­cer­at­ed youth.
  7. Per­va­sive racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties plagu­ing juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems nation­wide will not be reme­died with­out an inten­tion­al and unwa­ver­ing focus. 

    Despite the encour­ag­ing drop in the over­all pop­u­la­tion of youth in state facil­i­ties, Texas has not made any progress in reduc­ing racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties in juve­nile con­fine­ment. Indeed, the share of adju­di­cat­ed youth com­mit­ted to state cus­tody fell slight­ly faster for white youth from 2005 to 2012 than it did for black or His­pan­ic youth.
  8. Local courts and pro­ba­tion agen­cies fre­quent­ly devi­ate from best prac­tice in their han­dling of juve­nile cases.

    CSG also con­duct­ed exten­sive inter­views and fact-find­ing in eight large coun­ties, doc­u­ment­ing a num­ber of prob­lem­at­ic trends plagu­ing local pro­ba­tion efforts. Despite pow­er­ful evi­dence that juve­nile jus­tice inter­ven­tions work best when they tar­get inten­sive ser­vices on high-risk offend­ers, a sub­stan­tial share (40 to 91 per­cent) of low-risk youth served by pro­ba­tion in the eight coun­ties were placed into one or more treat­ment, sur­veil­lance or skill-build­ing pro­grams, while a sub­stan­tial major­i­ty of high-risk youth were not placed into any pro­gram or res­i­den­tial facil­i­ty. In six of the eight coun­ties low­er-risk youth remained in these pro­grams longer than their high-risk peers. Mean­while, CSG found, many youth with acute needs did not receive pro­grams that might have ben­e­fit­ted them.”
  9. The CSG study’s most endur­ing val­ue may be its large­ly unprece­dent­ed exam­i­na­tion of local pro­ba­tion agen­cies. 

    As part of its analy­sis, CSG exam­ined the recidi­vism results for pro­ba­tion youth in 30 Texas coun­ties, find­ing that nine of the coun­ties suf­fered sig­nif­i­cant­ly worse results than pre­dict­ed by objec­tive indi­ca­tors, while eight demon­strat­ed far bet­ter-than antic­i­pat­ed results. Clear­ly, how coun­ties oper­ate their juve­nile pro­ba­tion sys­tems exerts a pow­er­ful impact on success. 
  10. Devel­op­ing reli­able data and strong state lead­er­ship are crit­i­cal in improv­ing juve­nile jus­tice prac­tices and max­i­miz­ing suc­cess at the local lev­el. 

    The valu­able lessons pro­duced by the Clos­er to Home study show how impor­tant data can be in advanc­ing our under­stand­ing of what works (and doesn’t) in juve­nile jus­tice. And the unan­swered ques­tions raised by the report point to the need for even deep­er ongo­ing data analy­sis to mea­sure out­comes and con­tin­u­ous­ly improve pro­grams and prac­tices in light of emerg­ing evidence. 

    And thanks to rapid advances in the study of crim­i­nol­o­gy, ado­les­cent behav­ior, and brain sci­ence, the juve­nile jus­tice field has been flood­ed over the past two decades with an over­whelm­ing vol­ume of valu­able new infor­ma­tion. These advances have cre­at­ed enor­mous oppor­tu­ni­ties for improve­ments, but they have also pre­sent­ed sys­tem pro­fes­sion­als through­out the nation with an uphill strug­gle to adopt the new knowl­edge in prac­ti­cal ways on the ground. Local courts and pro­ba­tion agen­cies need guid­ance, they need train­ing and they need prop­er incen­tives if they are to make rapid progress in adopt­ing best prac­tices. State lead­ers in all three branch­es of gov­ern­ment can and should play a cen­tral role in cre­at­ing the con­di­tions to nur­ture local progress.

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