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Out-of-control Sentencing and Spending Does Little for Juveniles

| April 20, 2015

Over the last eight years in Texas, the juvenile justice system has been reshaped and reformed. Detention facilities have been shuttered, community supervision has been emphasized, and juvenile arrests have fallen by a third. In 2007 there were over four thousand juveniles incarcerated in the state, but today there are fewer than one thousand youth being housed by the state.

This session, West Virginia passed Senate Bill 393, which decreased the available opportunity for low-level juveniles to be transferred to detention facilities and increased funding for probation. These are policies recommended by the bipartisan Task Force on Juvenile Justice, begun after the state enacted Justice Reinvestment legislation last year. The state expects to reduce the residential placement of juveniles by 16 percent and save 20 million dollars.

Beginning in 2013, Georgia has worked wonders on juvenile justice. Realizing that their current system was expensive and still failing youths with a 65 percent recidivism rate, the state began using risk assessments. These assessments prevent children who have committed minor offenses such as truancy and violation of curfew from being put in a residential center. County after county in the state joined a program that targeted at-risk youth to lower felony offenses and placements among them. The program had unimaginably broad success, and lowered the state secure placements by 14 percent.

Each of these reforms are implementing programs in accordance with the brief just released by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Public Safety Performance Project’s new brief, “Re-Examining Juvenile Incarceration,” surveys research from across the country that demonstrates that out-of-home placements for juveniles – in most cases – are not effective for the youth, the community, or the state. Time after time, analysis has shown that youth in lower and moderate risk levels experience increased levels of recidivism when placed in residential settings compared to similar juveniles in community placements. Even youth with high-risk levels see similar recidivism rates between the groups. Only juveniles with very high incarceration rates saw improved recidivism from incarceration.

Reforms in states across the country are recognizing that juvenile incarceration is usually not in the best interest of public safety. Incarceration of low or moderate risk youth increases their likelihood recidivism, the chance that they will commit another crime after release. Whether this is because they are being exposed to more criminally experienced youth, job and education prospects are being shattered, or connections to their communities and families are being severed, clearly it is dangerous for the youth and the community.


These reforms also have their support bases in common. They have predominantly taken place in conservative states and with conservative support. The leading reason for this are the principles that are embodied in these reforms. Lowered juvenile incarceration promotes fiscal responsibility, family ties, and public safety. These reforms allow judges the opportunity to really evaluate whether a juvenile and their community would benefit from the expenses inherent in incarceration. This is smart on crime thinking at its best.


DIANNA MULDROW is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, where she focused on criminal justice and education policy. She has interned in the Governor’s Office, for the Chair of the State Board of Education, and most recently at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Education Freedom and Center for Effective Justice. She is now employed as a policy analyst for Right on Crime, focusing on juvenile justice. Muldrow has worked on many research papers and articles – for Texas and several other states – advocating for reforms in criminal justice that protect public safety in a cost-effective manner.