A falling crime rate and new reforms to the way juveniles are treated by the criminal justice system have dramatically cut the number of young people in state prisons, according to a new report that highlights the success of some of those reforms.
The report, published by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, focuses on Texas, where a series of reforms passed by the legislature beginning in 2007 have helped keep thousands of juvenile offenders closer to home.
Texas lawmakers passed those reforms after public outrage over a series of abuses taking place in state-run prison facilities, in which young inmates were attacked by other inmates and assaulted by corrections staffers. Then-governor Rick Perry joined Democratic and Republican lawmakers in calling for new methods that would help keep young offenders out of the state’s prison system.
The reforms included measures prohibiting youth convicted of misdemeanors from being sent to state-run prison facilities, instead incarcerating them in county and local facilities. Texas also set up grant programs for counties that created diversion programs to keep offenders in local communities.
In 2009, lawmakers set aside $45 million for what it called a Commitment Reduction Program, aimed at cutting recidivism rates. Two years later, they combined the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission into one department, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. And two years after that, in 2013, the legislature invested another $25 million in community mental health services.
The hundreds of millions of dollars invested in local juvenile probation departments has paid off in spades, the report found: The number of juveniles incarcerated in Texas has dropped so much the state has been able to close nine correctional facilities, re-arrest rates are significantly lower, and the state has saved hundreds of millions more in its corrections budget.
“We know kids do better now in the community than if they were incarcerated,” said Michael Thompson, director of the CSG Justice Center. “Those kids whose characteristics would have had them incarcerated not too long ago but are now in the community, they’re doing much better.”
Thompson said segregating offenders who commit misdemeanors from those who commit felonies makes a big difference. Mixing the two sets of offenders, he said, can allow those at low risk of committing another crime to be influenced by those who are at higher risk.
“When you mix kids of different risk levels, you increase the likelihood that those medium- and high-risk kids are going to be a negative influence on low-risk kids,” he said. “We know kids aren’t doomed to a particular outcome, that indeed you can have an impact on the likelihood of rearrest.”
Youth incarcerated in state-run facilities were 21 percent more likely to be re-arrested within a year than those supervised at a community level, the report found. Among those who do re-offend, those who were held in state-run facilities were three times more likely to do so by committing a felony.
Texas is hardly the only state to see a significant drop in the number of juvenile offenders in state-run prisons — from about 3,500 in 2006 to a little over 1,000 today. Over the last 15 years, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, Arizona, South Carolina, North Carolina and California have all cut their juvenile incarceration rates by more than 60 percent.
Since 1997, only four states — Nebraska, North Dakota, Idaho and West Virginia — have seen juvenile inmate populations increase.
Connecticut, which cut its youth prison population by almost 80 percent between 1997 and 2011, the last year for which figures are available, implemented its own set of reforms between 2007 and 2010 that included reducing the number of juvenile offenders who found their way into the adult justice system by raising the age of jurisdiction for juvenile justice programs and reducing arrests for non-serious offenses at school, among other measures, according to a 2013 report by the Justice Policy Institute.
Texas has a long way to go, Thompson said. The state’s youth recidivism rate has remained stubbornly high, largely because some reforms haven’t been fully implemented. The natural tendency to closely supervise an offender makes those offenders more likely to get involved deeper in the criminal justice system, which in turn increases their odds of re-offending.
But the reforms in Texas, Connecticut and other states provide some guidance to the rest of the nation. Even as crime rates have dropped over the last two decades, prison populations have remained near all-time highs, although those numbers have dropped slightly in recent years. As corrections budgets continue to balloon, states looking for ways to cut prison populations are increasingly turning to new methods to reduce recidivism rates.
“This is something that really every state should be looking at,” Thompson said. “We need to be doing more to make sure these programs are getting the intended result.”