Pilot programs to divert youth from the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) hang in the balance as the legislative session hits the home stretch. Under these pilot programs, youth who would otherwise be sent to TYC would instead be handled on juvenile probation. The Senate budget includes funding for pilot programs in Dallas, Austin, and South Texas. The House budget did not include any pilot funding, but the House version of the sunset bill calls for a statewide pilot program.

Dallas County has taken the lead in demonstrating how it could take advantage of a pilot program. Dallas County Juvenile Probation Director Mike Griffiths has developed a plan under which his department could serve the 236 youths per year other than Title V youths – the most seriously violent youths – that the County currently commits to TYC. The youths would be served for a total of 20 months, approximately the average length of TYC commitment, including 12 months of placement in a residential facility or intensive home-based services. The estimated cost would be $35,953 per year, compared to $99,000 per year at TYC.

Now Harris County is offering the Legislature a pilot proposal under which they would cut the number of youths they send to TYC by 25 percent in exchange for $40 million to support local juvenile justice community-based programs. By diverting 319 youths who otherwise would have gone to TYC, the pilot program in Harris County would result in net savings to the state of $11 million.

It is not just about saving money. Studies have shown that outcomes are better for most youth when they are kept closer to their homes. Ohio’s RECLAIM program that is similar to the proposed pilot programs has demonstrated this. The recidivism rate for moderate risk youth placed through RECLAIM was 22 percent, compared with a 54 percent rate such offenders in state lockups, which is comparable to TYC’s 52 percent rate.

Ideally, the opportunity to participate in the pilot project should open to all counties that wish to participate so Texas can maximize the savings to taxpayers and public safety benefits.

– Marc Levin