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Why Juvenile Justice Should Start—and Stay—at Home

Texas A&M researchers explain how community-based programs rehabilitate juvenile offenders better, and for less money, than correctional facilities.
(Photo: Cristy/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Cristy/Shutterstock)

In 2007, Texas’ state-run juvenile justice corrections system was plagued by scandal. Investigative reports uncovered evidence of widespread physical and sexual abuse in the correctional facilities, horrifying parents and policymakers alike. As a result of these revelations, judges became hesitant to send offenders to facilities they saw as unsafe, and legislators set into motion a set of reforms for the state juvenile justice system.

These reforms included a reduced reliance on secure facilities, and an increased use (and funding) of smaller, local programs that could act as alternatives to incarceration—especially for younger, and non-violent, offenders. The population being held in secure confinement shrank; many facilities closed down.

Austin Clemens and Miner P. Marchbanks III, associate research scientists at the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University, recently worked with a group at the Council of State Governments Justice Center to assess the impact that these reforms have had on juvenile recidivism in the years since. Among their findings was the fact that, even when they controlled for all kinds of variables—like race, gender, gang affiliation, and prior offenses—recidivism was lower for kids who went through community-based alternative programs than for those who had been locked up in state facilities.

The report, appropriately entitled “Closer to Home: An Analysis of the State and Local Impact of the Texas Juvenile Justice Reforms,” came out this week. They spoke to me about it; this is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

You looked at the differences between state-run secure juvenile correctional facilities, and county-run community supervision programs. What kinds of community programs were you looking at?

Austin Clemens: There’s a really wide range across counties, but there are some constants. Every county has its own kind of version of secure confinement—so they have a jail for kids to stay in, usually for shorter periods of time. Almost all of them have what we call non-secure confinement, too—where kids aren’t living at home, but they might be living in a drug rehab center or something like that—it’s non-secure in the sense that they’re not behind bars.

Then we classify the remainder into three categories: what we call treatment programs, skills-based programs, and surveillance programs. Treatment programs would involve some kind of therapy or rehab, for substance abuse problems or mental health problems, for instance. Skills programs can be a wide range of things—we have in Texas, to give an uncommon example, equestrian companionship, which has a therapeutic component. Or a common thing is “boot camps” or outdoor programs, where kids camp.

How do courts in Texas decide which programs to send offenders to?

Clemens: They really have a lot of leeway. It’s largely seen as a best practice to try to get a lot of high-risk kids into some of these programs, and ideally not to mix really high-risk youths with low-risk youths. Unfortunately, that [mixing] seems to be happening more than we would like.

Are there particular community programs that have been especially successful?

Clemens: Our co-authors at the Justice Center divided up all the county programs and put them into those three categories. We found that, generally, skills programs and treatment programs (depending on the time period you’re looking at) tend to prevent recidivism a little more effectively than some of the other things that a kid could get, like surveillance programs or county confinement.

Besides the success of these programs, was cost-effectiveness something you looked at as well?

Clemens: A little bit. We know how much counties are spending on their whole probation program, but we didn’t know how much they’re spending on specific programs. But we could look at the budget that a county was working with, and ask, does having a higher budget seem to lead to better outcomes, or not? And that was not clear from the data: we had some counties that were spending a lot of money that didn’t seem to be doing very well, and others that were not spending a lot of money that were doing well. So it’s not clear that just spending more money was something that led to better outcomes.

On the other hand, it does look like these county services are a heck of a lot cheaper than sending kids to a state facility. Some of these state facilities are costing in excess of $130,000 a year per kid. You might as well be putting these kids up at nice hotels in New York or something. It’s just a ton of money. So by shifting a lot of that burden to the counties, the state is going to save a lot of money, just because the counties are going to shoulder some of the burden, but also Texas is going to save some money, because those services are cheaper.

Miner P. Marchbanks III: I was thinking, we could send these kids to Harvard [for that much money], and we’d all be better off.

So in the end you did find that recidivism rates were lower for juveniles who went through community-based programs than those who were locked up in state facilities. Can you talk about why that might be?

Marchbanks: When we write about the reasons, everything there is speculative—we’re really thinking from a hypothetical standpoint. That’s for future researchers to go into. I personally believe that it has to do with keeping kids in an environment where they are able to see their families more often. These kids were being shipped off hundreds of miles—sometimes over a thousand miles—away from their families. And when you’re talking about low-income kids, they may not get to see their parents the entire time they are incarcerated, because of transportation issues. That is not conducive to maintaining healthy family relationships.

You’re also not being able to socialize with peers who are role models in any way. If you’re a person of faith, your youth minister or youth pastor can’t come by and meet with you. Somebody from the Boys & Girls Club can’t come by and check on you, teachers, coaches—people like that. All those things, I think, play a large role in ensuring that a kid can get back on the right path.

I also think that the local probation officers are more likely to know the kid, and what is most likely to make him or her respond well, rather than somebody in secure confinement, who is meeting the kid for the first time, and taking a guess about what works best for most kids, rather than for this unique individual. Taken collectively, I think all of those things come into play.

Clemens: To put the distance aspect in perspective, when we talk about these state facilities not being in the communities, we’re not saying they’re 45 minutes down the road. This is Texas; some of the facilities are in deep West Texas. If you’ve ever been to West Texas, you know that you can go 100 miles without finding a gas station. So some of these facilities were deeply isolated from the communities, by hundreds of miles.

What aspects of these reforms do you think might be applicable to other states?

Clemens: One thing that’s worth noting is that this is actually not isolated to Texas. Juvenile prison populations are decreasing, basically all over the United States, with the exception of a few states. Prison populations have been decreasing across all of the states, and juvenile crime has been decreasing across all of the states. So yes, we’re looking particularly at Texas, but in some ways Texas is just a microcosm of what’s happening the whole nation over.

It really goes to show that you can take prison away as a punishment, and it’s not going to endanger people, it’s not going to lead to increases in crime—it just doesn’t seem to have that connection. I would think there is certainly a place in just about every state for taking some of these things to heart, and saying, OK, we can keep some of these kids in the community, and it’s not going to jeopardize public safety at all. I think it’s just one small part of a trend that’s happening everywhere. It has really shown us the power of moving away from some of these older notions about what punishment has to be.

Marchbanks: For me, I have to say that one of the surprising findings was that, after you controlled for everything, from a statistical standpoint, that recidivism rates were better for kids staying at home, versus going to secure confinement. I expected there to be at least a little bit of an improvement for kids who had had a more harsh punishment. And that wasn’t the case.

That’s very encouraging—not only from a standpoint of what’s best for the children, and being able to rehabilitate them more quickly and humanely, but also from an economic standpoint. It’s much, much more efficient to rehabilitate these kids close to home, where we’re not spending over $100,000 a year trying to do a job that we aren’t doing as well. To me, that was one of the more surprising findings, and one of the more important findings as well.

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.