Houston Matters

Study Shows Juvenile Justice Reforms in Texas Are Working

A federal civil rights investigation into law enforcement and criminal justice in Ferguson, Missouri will be released Wednesday. A law enforcement official familiar with the report tells NPR the investigation determined blacks were disproportionately targeted by police and the justice system, leading to – or reinforcing – a lack of trust in both police and the courts. […]


A federal civil rights investigation into law enforcement and criminal justice in Ferguson, Missouri will be released Wednesday. A law enforcement official familiar with the report tells NPR the investigation determined blacks were disproportionately targeted by police and the justice system, leading to – or reinforcing – a lack of trust in both police and the courts. That lack of trust towards the criminal justice system, particularly among minority youth, did not start with the case of Michael Brown, and is not just limited to Ferguson.

On this program, we’ve explored such perceptions of inequities in criminal justice in Houston, and efforts among law enforcement here to better relate to the people they serve. As we learned in the latter conversation, how youth first engage with law enforcement and the courts can make a big difference. If you only ever interact with police and judges after you’re in trouble with the law, you’ll always see them as adversarial. Nevertheless, those are the circumstances young people who break the law find themselves in, and as a result, some are sent to juvenile detention centers.

A 2015 study published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics examines a decade’s worth of data on some 35,000 juvenile offenders in Chicago, and among the findings, concludes young offenders who go before judges who tend towards higher incarceration rates are less likely to graduate from high school, and more likely to go to prison as an adult. That study reinforces the findings of one from last month by The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, which analyzes the state and local impact of juvenile justice reforms here in Texas. It concludes forms of community-based supervision, where juveniles receive treatment and supervision closer to home, instead of being shipped off to faraway juvenile detention centers, might prevent Texas youth from being arrested again, and may save taxpayers money along the way.

Today, in light of this research and the ongoing debate over youth and our criminal justice system, we learn about the state of juvenile detention centers in Texas as we talk with David Reilly, Executive Director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, and Debbie Unruh, the Chief Ombudsman for the department, who advocates for youth detained in juvenile facilities across the state. We discuss the impact of reforms starting in 2007, prompted by cases of abuse in the state’s juvenile detention centers. We also consider what further steps could be taken to better address kids that are already in juvenile detention, and identify those who would be better served through alternate forms of punishment.

(Image Courtesy: Texas Tribune)

Share