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Texas juvenile justice reforms highlight California's shortcomings

A new report shows that Texas has proceeded on a similar track as California in its statewide efforts to reform its juvenile justice systems yet with superior results, specifically in the state's community-based models run by counties.   As in California, the Texas state-managed facilities were plagued with scandals for years, with independent investigations revealing extensive physical and sexual abuse of youth wards in the Texas Youth Commission (TYC).  The incarcerated youth population in both of the state's youth correctional facilities increased dramatically during the "tough on crime" culture of the 1990s, when conservative lawmakers pushed through an aggressive, punishment-focused legislative agenda that diminished rehabilitative approaches to youth crime.

In the same way that California passed Senate Bill 81 in 2007 to reduce the youth population in the systematically abusive Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF), Texas signed into law a series of three sweeping legislative initiatives in 2007, 2009, and 2011 to reform juvenile justice practices statewide. Unlike SB 81, the new Texas efforts invest in community-based treatment options for juvenile offenders at the county level through a competitive grant process that also mandates strict accountability and reporting guidelines.  California's SB 81 relies on a block grant program (YOBG) that awards counties with annual non-competitive allocations that include only minimal accountability mechanisms that can determine whether or not counties are implementing model practices with the state funding.   Counties simply present their plans to the Board of State and Community Corrections annually yet, as a recent Bureau of State Audits report found, there is no comprehensive data system in place that is able evaluate if county practices are improving youth outcomes or are reducing recidivism.  

In 2011, Texas passed Senate Bill 653, a bill that established the new Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), which was designed to create, "a unified juvenile justice agency that can coordinate efforts between county governments, juvenile courts, and community-based organizations that is focused on positive outcomes for youth, families, and communities."  The agency emphasizes accountability through monitoring and system-wide performance measures, promotes programming and interventions that have been proven to be most effective in rehabilitating youth, and prioritizes community-based and family-based programs and services for youth over the placement of youth in secure facilities.

California needs to revisit its approach to juvenile justice. 
California's SB 81 was certainly successful in reducing the number of juvenile offenders in the archaic state facilities, which is a commendable outcome in itself. This landmark legislation eliminated the historical practices of some counties of sending lower-level youth offenders into the state facilities.   The bill also established an important precedent of reinvestment into counties in order to improve and enhance their county practices.  It represented the most significant reforms in California's juvenile justice policy since the 1940's.

Yet when compared to Texas and the reforms of other states like Ohio and Missouri, the long-term statewide impact did not achieve the necessary results in order to cultivate a 21st century approach to juvenile justice. The striking gaps in the SB 81 reforms are well-articulated in a 2009 Prison Law Office report, which finds:  Inadequate mechanisms for tracking YOBG expenditures and overall effects of the realignment; a lack of technical assistance to support local implementation; no clear standards for SB 81 funding expenditures; no guidelines for county planning processes; and zero accountability for SB 81 expenditures, such as requisite tracking of outcomes.

California lawmakers need to return their attention to juvenile justice reform in California in order to strengthen the initial efforts by SB 81, including the optimization of local supervision for 707(b) youth offenders.  As in Texas, breaking the cycles of recidivism in local communities will require the sustained attention of policymakers over several legislative sessions, not simply a one-time reform effort.

Keywords: best practices, Brian Heller de Leon, SB 81, Texas

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice

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