Note: This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on April 24, 2012.
This week, national leaders and experts on juvenile justice policy will gather in Houston to discuss the lessons learned during the past few years of juvenile detention reform, and the prospects for further reforms.
It is no coincidence that Houston was selected for this meeting. Harris County is a shining example of the extraordinary dividends paid when smart, effective, and efficient juvenile detention policies are enacted.
Those policies came about when, almost five years ago, Harris County partnered with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to implement new programs aimed at creating more efficient and effective pretrial detention policies for juveniles. This work, known as the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), is predicated on research demonstrating the need to better distinguish which youths should be detained prior to trial.
Pretrial detention for the relatively small number of juveniles who pose a flight risk or danger to society is necessary to ensure justice and public safety. However, detention of low-risk juveniles who do not pose such a danger is a wasteful expenditure of taxpayer dollars that increases the odds of negative outcomes for juveniles. In fact, recent studies suggest that commingling low-risk youths with the most delinquent and dangerous youths makes it more likely the low-risk youth will reoffend.
Therefore, Harris County implemented a variety of innovative approaches, including deferred prosecution for low-level, first time offenders; requiring risk assessment for youths prior to placement in a detention facility; an evening reporting center; specialized dockets for gang members, mentally ill youths and suspected victims of human trafficking; electronic monitoring; and short-term shelter options for youths unable to return home.
Early outcome data show that Harris County’s leadership on this issue has paid dividends not just for youth, but also for taxpayers and residents seeking safer streets and communities.
More juveniles in Harris County are now being successfully diverted from detention and its sometimes counterproductive effects, including greater risks for subsequent incarceration, peer deviancy contagions, and the fraying of positive ties with family, school, and communities. Now, fewer juveniles are being rearrested even while fewer juveniles are being detained prior to adjudication. Moreover, the proportion of youths failing to appear for their court dates has dropped 20 percent, even though fewer are detained preadjudication.
Taxpayers are better off as well. These detention reforms resulted in a 25 percent drop in youth admitted to the pretrial detention center, which costs more than $3,000 per juvenile on average, producing substantial savings. The county eliminated 89 detention beds, decreased the average length of stay in detention facilities by 14 percent, and safely reduced the number of staffers employed to detain juveniles, all of which saved Harris County taxpayers money.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, smarter detention policies in Harris County are enhancing public safety. Communities and streets are safer because of the use of these smarter, more effective juvenile detention policies.
Rates at which youths are referred to the juvenile justice system in Harris County are down 23 percent – 8 more percentage points than the statewide drop in referrals in the last five years.
Harris County’s move to implement more efficient juvenile detention procedures is resulting in better outcomes for youth, more efficient use of taxpayer dollars and safer streets. And as national juvenile justice experts – representing 38 states and 150 jurisdictions across the country – gather in Houston, the rest of Texas could reap these same benefits by following Harris County’s lead.
Across Texas, juvenile probation departments made more than 40,000 placements into detention centers in 2010, for an average of 14 days for each juvenile, with an estimated price tag of more than $23 million. With thousands of kids and millions of dollars at stake, Harris County’s leadership deserves careful consideration by the rest of the state, and Harris County residents should be proud that their home has become a national model for effective juvenile justice policies that have produced positive outcomes for public safety, taxpayers and troubled youths.
Emmett is the Harris County judge and chairman of the Harris County Juvenile Board; Moll is a juvenile justice policy analyst for TPPF’s Center for Effective Justice.