Looking for a good value on lodging in the city that never sleeps? Don’t bother with New York City’s juvenile detention center. It goes for $620 a night or $226,300 for a year, about twice the typical rate at the Ritz-Carlton. This almost makes Texas Youth Commission (TYC) lockups seem like a bargain at $271 a night or $98,915 a year.
Whether in the Big Apple or the Rio Grande Valley, taking a bite out of taxpayers’ wallets might make sense if it took a large bite out of crime. However, research shows that for most youths, incarceration is less effective than evidence-based juvenile probation programs that supervise and treat youths in their homes and communities.
An abuse scandal at TYC and a 55 percent re-offense rate sparked reforms in 2007 to divert more youths into community-based programs. Since then, the TYC population has dropped from 3,400 to 2,200. Even now, about half of TYC youths were committed for burglary, drugs, theft, or another non-violent offense.
Most importantly, juvenile crime has declined while TYC has downsized. In 2009, 20,943 Texas youths were adjudicated for an offense, a drop from 24,965 in 2006 despite 3 percent juvenile population growth.
Taxpayers have saved more than $200 million from a smaller TYC, even after reinvesting $100 million in probation to supervise youths who would have previously been sent to TYC.
First, in 2007, lawmakers redirected from TYC misdemeanants such as marijuana, graffiti, and alcohol offenders. Probation departments received $57.8 million over two years to handle these 800 youths, who would have cost approximately $150 million to house at TYC.
Second, last year, lawmakers provided nearly $46 million in grants to fund community-based programs in jurisdictions that pledged to lower commitments to TYC, which results in net savings. Each program is regularly evaluated with continued funding based on performance measures such as re-offending.
However, juvenile justice is at another crossroads due to a projected state budget shortfall of $10 billion to $15 billion.
Counties also face budget shortfalls, with Harris and Dallas asking departments to identify savings. Counties fund nearly two-thirds of juvenile probation. Thus, a strong fiscal partnership between the state and counties is vital to ensure that youths are not sent to TYC simply because less costly and often more effective community-based options are unavailable.
Texas can continue saving money and protecting public safety by renewing support for probation departments’ TYC diversion initiatives that more than pay for themselves as they enable TYC to continue downsizing.
For example, intensive in-home programs with both a probation officer and family therapist making frequent home visits significantly reduce re-offenses and cost a fraction of TYC. As such local programs take root, juvenile crime continues to drop and TYC commitments have fallen 38 percent this year. Every youth redirected from TYC saves taxpayers about $80,000 a year.
For all but the most serious and high-risk offenders, incarceration often increases re-offending, as lower-risk youths are negatively influenced by higher-risk peers and positive bonds with their family, church, and community are frayed. While effective in-home programs address the lack of discipline and other underlying family issues typically at the root of delinquency, these problems may remain unsolved after a non-violent youth stays for an average of 11 months at TYC and returns to the same setting.
Texas has made remarkable progress in lowering juvenile crime while reducing costs. Policymakers can build on these gains for public safety and taxpayers by continuing to strengthen community-based programs that hold juveniles accountable through proven supervision and treatment strategies, ensuring that the most costly destination for Texas youths is truly the last resort.
Marc A. Levin, Esq. is the Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.