While the economy and the pandemic remained of primary importance in many individuals’ vote for president and the Senate, Texas exit polls suggest crime and safety were the most important issues for a significant portion of Republican voters as was racial equality for an even larger portion of Democrat voters. Fortunately, lawmakers in Texas can blend both Republican and Democratic voters’ priorities by taking up a new issue: youth probation reform. States like Utah and Kentucky have promoted diversion programs to change lives and have saved moneyin the process. Texas should follow suit.

Probation is the juvenile court’s most common response to crime, and it reflects the same racial disparities all too common throughout the juvenile justice system. On an average day last year in Texas, more than 10,000 young people were on probation after being found delinquent — the juvenile system’s version of guilty — by the court. Black and Hispanic youth were more likely than their white peers to be placed on probation, while white youth were more likely to see their cases resolved earlier in the criminal justice process and thus avoid an official finding of guilt and term of probation.

Unfortunately, recent state data suggests the probation system in Texas isn’t doing a great job of promoting youth success and preventing any return to crime from crime. Six out of every 10 youth placed on probation following an adjudication in 2015 were rearrested within three years of their supervision starting, and about a quarter of the same youth were reconvicted in the juvenile system or convicted as an adult within the same time period.

Fortunately, localities in and out of Texas have shown that by embracing diversion, or programs that specifically address the behavior that led to the individual’s run-in with the criminal justice system, it is possible to reform youth probation and also more wisely spend taxpayer dollars.

To the first point, research suggests that placing young people who pose little risk of reoffending on probation may do more harm than good. Diverting them toward community-based programs that will address their behavior like counseling, community service and education, for example, rather than formally sending them through the criminal justice system, can result in lower recidivism rates while also avoiding the harms associated with a juvenile record.

While some in Texas are embracing this approach, there is more work to be done. Consider that Harris County is increasing its use of diversion and investing in community-based services. One Houston provider, reVision, is employing credible messengers and, in some cases, retraining probation officers to serve as case managers for the program. Kids and families are getting what they need for the first time, and preliminary data shared with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition suggests the re-arrest rates for youth served by Harris County providers has since been steadily decreasing.

Likewise, states like Utah and Kentucky have both increased their use of diversion and attempted to improve racial equity by mandating pre-court diversion for all infractions, status offenses, misdemeanors (in Utah’s case) or all first-time misdemeanors (in Kentucky’s case), with certain exceptions. This means young people charged with offenses such as alcohol or marijuana possession, trespassing or petty theft are no longer at risk of being placed on probation or in detention by the court.

Utah’s reforms also required that probation plans be developed in collaboration with kids and families and reflect the individual youth’s assessed needs and risks. And the state limited terms of formal probation to four to six months — about half of the average length of stay (332 days) for young people placed on probation following adjudication in Texas.

Following the enactment of these reforms, court referrals in Utah have dropped, supervision has been more aligned with young people’s risks and needs, and fewer young people have been placed in detention and out of home placements. Utah has saved millions of dollars, allowing for reinvestment in needed community services. In Kentucky, reforms have greatly increased the number of young people diverted prior to court without any significant changes in public safety. There is no reason Texas cannot follow in their footsteps.

As Texas enters a particularly challenging biennium, it will be necessary for legislators to take a closer look at all systems that affect the state budget, public safety and community wellness. Youth probation reform offers one opportunity to improve all three areas. By investing in more effective, lower-cost, front-end responses to crime grounded in youth development principles, Texas can reduce how many youth return to the justice system — or enter it in the first place.

Image credit: Michal Kalasek

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