Criminal Justice

Kids of color are disproportionately punished in the Harris County juvenile justice system, a study shows

The study showed a small group of kids who had multiple interactions with the system — disproportionately youth of color — were more likely to receive harsher punishments, even though their offenses didn’t increase in severity.

Harris County Juvenile Justice Center in Houston. Taken on Feb. 1, 2022.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Harris County Juvenile Justice Center in Houston. Taken on Feb. 1, 2022.

The Harris County juvenile justice system disproportionately punishes a small group of Black and brown kids more harshly than others, according to a study from Rice University Texas Policy Lab.

Of the 42,000 kids who came into contact with the Harris County juvenile justice system between 2010 and 2019, most had only one interaction, according to the study. But it also found a small group of kids with multiple referrals — disproportionately youth of color, particularly young Black boys — were more likely to receive harsher punishments, even though their offenses didn’t increase in severity.

The partnership between the Texas Policy Lab and the Harris County juvenile justice system is the first step toward transforming the impact of the youth justice system in Harris County, said Dr. Diana Quintana, the deputy director of the health services division at Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.

She said the harsher punishments comes from a misconception about the criminal justice system’s effectiveness in preventing repeat offenses.

“There’s an issue of perception that ‘I’ve got to do more and more and more to take this kid away from this lifetime of crime,'” Quintana said.

But that may not be the case, according to Dr. Diego Amador, the lead criminal and juvenile justice research scientist at the Texas Policy Lab.

Instead, further contact with the system may instead lead to an increase in offenses.

“We then see a system that tended to push kids toward the deeper end with each additional contact,” Amador said.

Researchers say the study’s findings are an opportunity to identify which kids are more likely to have repeat interactions with the juvenile justice system, and recognize when and how to intervene.

Harris County commissioners have passed a number of community programs and resources that aim to provide youth incarceration alternatives, including mental health services and a marijuana offense diversion program. Referrals to the juvenile justice system have significantly decreased in Harris County in the past few years, Quintana said.

While funding community resources is a first step, kids still need their parents or guardians help to access these resources, according to Katya Dow, a law professor and cofounder of the Juvenile and Children’ Advocacy Project at the University of Houston Law Center.

“A 12-year-old, 13-year-old, 14-year-old is not going to be able to drive themselves, or take themselves to programs that would be beneficial to them, or to therapy that is necessary, or to doctors visits,” Dow said.

Those programs have put Harris County in a position to take action to further decrease youth incarceration, said Alycia Castillo, director of policy and advocacy at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity. But she added early intervention with potential repeat offenders isn’t enough, because children of color are criminalized regardless due to systemic racism.

The best solution, Castillo said, is to stop incarcerating kids in a prison system that wasn’t designed with them in mind. Instead, she said, the county should find other ways to hold youth accountable while still helping vulnerable kids.

“As long as the prisons exist, you will see Black and brown kids filling them,” she said.