October 2010  

Reforming Juvenile Justice…One Kid at a Time

The Harris County Juvenile Probation Department is changing juvenile justice in Harris County, saving taxpayers’ money and redirecting juveniles away from crime.
With programs and services at all parts of the system, from intake and pre-adjudication through post-adjudication, Harris County seeks alternatives to detention while keeping our community safe. Steps are being taken to keep our youths in school. Educational supervision and counseling are provided, as well as visits with therapists and mental health professionals. Youths are tracked at home and school to ensure compliance with conditions of release. Harris County has experienced a reduction of juvenile crime, a drop in detention admissions, and an overall drop in referrals to the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation -
Harris County Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative

Since 1992, the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, has demonstrated that jurisdictions can safely reduce reliance on "secure detention” through a series of inter-related reform strategies while at the same time reducing juvenile crime. (In "secure detention," youth are locked down. In non-secure detention they are still not allowed to come and go as they please but may, if progress indicates, be allowed weekend passes to visit family. Youth in all facilities are under 24-hour supervision.)
In September 2007, Harris County was selected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to participate in JDAI, which is now being replicated in approximately 100 jurisdictions across the United States. JDAI's objectives include eliminating inappropriate or unnecessary use of secure detention, minimizing juveniles’ failures to appear in court, redirecting public finances to reform strategies that work and improving conditions in detention facilities.
The results are dramatic, according to Tom Brooks, Executive Director, Harris County Juvenile Probation. “Every day we are reminded our work matters when we see fewer kids getting involved in juvenile probation and the public feeling safer in their communities. JDAI has been a great asset to Harris County, getting community stakeholders involved and increasing transparency in our department,” Brooks said.
A look at progress in the programs and services implemented by the Juvenile Probation Department includes the following:
Risk Assessment Instrument (RAI) is used at intake to determine whether or not a youth will remain in the juvenile detention center before court or be allowed to go home to a parent or guardian. Medium risk youth may be released with conditions, which may include participating in an alternative to detention program such as the Juvenile Tracking Program. Use of the RAI has resulted in a 19% decrease in the number of youths detained since implementation in February 2009. The Westside Detention Center closed because of this decrease in detention population, creating a significant savings to the county.
Mental Health Docket, created by Judge John Phillips in the 314th District Court in response to the growing number of mentally ill youth appearing before him, is a voluntary, specialized, diversionary court program for families of youth with mental health problems who are involved in the justice system. Eighty-six percent of youth in mental health court are staying out of trouble, getting the help they need, and saving the county money – approximately $240 per day, per child.
Drug Court, created in Judge Michael Schneider’s 315th District Court, is for juveniles with serious alcohol or drug abuse problems and focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment.


Deferred Prosecution Program has saved the county an estimated $1.5 million by diverting first-time offenders who commit non-violent misdemeanor offenses into community supervision programs. Since the program began, thanks to District Attorney Pat Lykos, more than 2,300 juveniles have been diverted to either the 90-day or 180-day program with a 90% success rate.
Evening Reporting Center is an alternative to detention providing educational and recreational supervision along with counseling to probationers between the hours of 3:00 and 9:00 p.m. The first Neighborhood Evening Reporting Center was established with state diversionary grant funds as another alternative to costly detention.
Juvenile Tracking Program, another alternative to detention making use of state diversionary grant funds, provides for monitoring of youth in their homes and school with up to two contacts per day.
Functional Family Therapy and Multi-Systemic Therapy are two models of intervention and prevention treatment implemented with state diversionary grant funds. Functional Family Therapy is a model of intervention working with the youth, their families, and other community-based resources. Multi-Systemic Therapy is designed to decrease family conflict, improve school performance, decrease association with negative peers and develop a natural support network.
Kinder Emergency Shelter is a collaborative effort with Harris County Protective Services and provides a community-based residential alternative to detention for those youth whose significant family conflict prevents immediate return home.
Attorney Continuity allows for the defense attorney assigned at the initial detention hearing to remain with the youth throughout court proceedings.
JDAI Self-Inspection Report is a corrective action plan implemented to improve conditions of confinement.
Juvenile Detention Programming involves 25 new programs provided by community organizations, non-profits, and volunteers to youth in detention at no cost to the county.
Leadership Academy replaces Boot Camp and focuses on redirecting the thinking and behavior patterns of youthful offenders.
The success is measurable. From 2007 to 2009:
There was a 24% drop in detention admissions. The average daily detention population in 2009 never exceeded the state mandate of 250 – for the first time since the opening of the Juvenile Justice Center.
Petitions filed by the District Attorney’s Office dropped by 24%.
With a 42% drop in out-of-home placements, more post-adjudicated youth are remaining in their homes with individualized and stringent community supervision, saving the county about $700,000 per month.
Because juvenile judges commit fewer youths to the Texas Youth Commission and use local resources to provide services, there has been a 62% drop in commitments to the TYC.
Referrals for juvenile crime are down: 44% drop in auto theft referrals, 53% drop in felony drug referrals and 31% drop in unauthorized use of motor vehicle referrals.
Prevention and intervention programs throughout the county have resulted in a reduction of 14% overall in referrals to the Juvenile Probation Department.
Real Lives - Real People
The statistics are important, but the numbers represent human lives and the hope that youth who become involved with the juvenile system can become productive, mature adults.
One youth whose life has turned around because of his encounter with the Harris County juvenile system is "David." David grew up in a single-parent home with a physically abusive mother who often left him alone with her various boyfriends, who also were physically abusive. As David grew older, the physical abuse lessened, but he remained an angry young man.
In an incident last year, David's mother again began threatening him. David picked up a kitchen knife, telling his mother he would not be afraid of her any more. Law enforcement was called, and David was booked for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He was transported to the Harris County Juvenile Department, where he was held for several days and later released to his mother.
David was given an alternative to detention. His probation included reporting to a probation officer, attending anger management classes with his mother, submitting to random drug screens and participating in a mentor program.
The mentor program offered David a male role model he could trust and confide in. With the help of his mentor, David worked and saved to enroll in a mixed martial arts program. His involvement in that program helped teach him discipline, respect and how to channel his anger into something productive. Anger management classes and the support of his probation officer made a significant impact on his life. His relationship with his mother has slowly improved, and he says with absolute certainty he will never resort to threats of physical harm again. David is an active representative with the JDAI Youth Advisory Council and speaks to young teenagers on the consequences of harboring anger and the destructive path it leads to.
For a comprehensive list of programs and services of the Juvenile Probation Department, please click here.