A recent study about Texas juveniles in a state detention center showed the youths responded better when they were closer to their families.
The survey, conducted by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonpartisan nonprofit group, studied 115 juveniles at the Giddings State School in Austin, which is the facility for Bell County juveniles convicted of violent crimes.
"The closer they are to home, the more likely you’ll get some familial participation and that is a positive," said Judge Ed Johnson.
Johnson has been the designated juvenile court judge for the past 26 years in Bell County. His court, county court one, also oversees juveniles in Lampasas County.
About one-fourth of the funding for local juvenile justice comes from state grants, said Johnson, noting that the juvenile probation program gets its entire budget from the state.
In 2011, more than 1,000 cases were referred to the local juvenile probation program. Of that number, more than 730 were for delinquent conduct and crimes ranging from class-B misdemeanors to felonies. The others were for conduct indicating a need for supervision, such as runaways or truancy.
As for Giddings, the survey showed that once youths were transported there, visits from family dropped dramatically. Of the youths surveyed, 62 percent reported receiving visits at least once a week while in county facilities, but only 15 percent reported having weekly visits while at the state detention center.
The survey suggested an increase in grant money for diversionary programs, but state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, said the state doesn’t have any plans to increase funding for juvenile justice. Instead, more funding will be funneled toward local programs by closing state facilities.
"We’re not going to spend more money opening smaller facilities," said Madden, who chairs the House Corrections Committee, which overseas the recently created Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
"You put the money that you take from incarceration and put it in the local community," he added. "The state doesn’t have to spend more money; they just have to spend it wisely."
Madden said focus will be placed on diversionary programs designed to prevent youths from committing crimes.
More money should be spent on prevention programs, said Johnson. "If you give me $5,000 to help a troubled youth early on, I’ll save you money and make you money later."
Estimating that about half of the youths he encounters in court have problems at home, Johnson said, parenting classes and mentor programs should be a priority.
On Wednesday, Johnson sentenced a 16-year-old male to probation for six months after the teenager pleaded true to participating in a robbery.
Before making his decision, Johnson heard testimony from the teenager’s mother, who told the court of her son’s good grades and strong participation in athletics. The judge read letters from the youth’s teachers praising his performance in school.
Besides the probation, Johnson imposed a strict curfew and forbid the teenager from hanging around with others involved in the crime.
The judge told the young offender that he was sticking his neck out for him.
"Son, you now represent me in this community," said Johnson, remarking that if the teenager gets into trouble again, people will question his probation decision. "I will keep my word with you, son. I expect you to keep yours with me."
This piece is reprinted with permission from the Kileen Daily Herald.
Philip Jankowski is the cops and courts reporter at the Kileen Daily Herald in Texas.
*Photo at top by Flickr user jenni waterloo