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Texas Goes Big on Youth Justice Reform

October 12, 2017

NJJN’s Texas members, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC), Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children were successful in their collaborative efforts to pass legislation focused on dual-status youth, confidentiality of juvenile records, 10 and 11 year olds in the juvenile justice system and the suspension and expulsion of kids in early grades.

The Texas Legislature passed two bills aimed at better serving youth involved in both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Data from around the country suggest that most youth in the juvenile justice system have had some involvement with the child welfare system. No Texas-specific data is available on the number of youth involved in both systems, but there have been reports of kids receiving duplicative services simultaneously through juvenile probation and the child welfare system. Even if both services are evidence based, uncoordinated, duplicative services can have negative effects on youth and prove costly to the state.

“Often the abuse and past trauma that leads a youth to land in the child welfare system is the same trauma that leads a youth to delinquency,” Lauren Rose, Director of Youth Justice Policy at Texans Care for Children said. “By improving information sharing and data collection of youth involved in both juvenile justice and child welfare, we can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the services provided and help some of our must vulnerable youth get on a path to success.”

HB 1521 focuses on cross-agency communication to improve services and supports for dual-status youth and HB 932 aims to address issues in data collection.

  • HB 1521 promotes communication between the Department of Family Protective Services, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and local juvenile probation departments by requiring each agency, on request, to share information relating to dual-system youth. The goal is to encourage these agencies to identify and coordinate the provision of services, thus enhancing rehabilitation and promoting  community safety
  • HB 932 requires state agencies to collect and compile  information concerning the number of youth involved in both systems while stakeholders develop a plan to make information sharing between systems efficient.

In addition to addressing the issue of dual-status youth, Texas also passed legislation requiring the automatic record sealing and in some cases permanent record destruction of most youth’s juvenile records, while further limiting who has access to all records before sealing or destruction. Lindsey Linder, TCJC Policy Attorney asserts SB 1304 is a strong, progressive measure that will ensure record confidentiality and reduce future barriers to education, employment, housing and other services.

The Legislature also took a small first step towards acknowledging the juvenile justice system is not appropriate for ten and eleven year olds. HB 1204 attempts to divert 10- and 11-year-old, low-level offenders to more appropriate settings.  Texas advocates will continue to push to keep kids under 14 out of the Texas juvenile justice system.

Lastly, Texas passed  HB 674 to reduce the early start of the school-to-prison pipeline by prohibiting the use of discretionary out-of-school suspensions for kids in pre-kindergarten through second grade. The bill also encourages school districts to adopt age-appropriate, research-based positive behavior models like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and restorative practices in order to create safe, supportive schools that do not rely on harmful, punitive discipline methods.

“Many school districts were suspending kids as young as four years old for violations like ‘horseplay,’ ‘insubordination,’ and other behaviors that are often part of completely normal child development. The alarming number of classroom exclusions---over 26,000 for pre-k through second graders in one school year---really says more about the choices of the adults in a school than it says about the behavior of the young students,” said Morgan Craven, Director of the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project at Texas Appleseed. “HB 674 is so important because it ends a practice that is harmful for students, that creates negative school climates, and that impacts children of color and students with disabilities disproportionately.  We hope that school districts across Texas will take advantage of the many resources that are available to support educators and keep students in their classrooms, learning with their peers.”

While advocates in Texas were thrilled to support these great reforms, they continue to work on Raise the Age legislation, which fell short this legislative session. Linder says that this roadblock will not keep juvenile justice reform from progressing, saying “The failure of Raise the Age to pass will not keep us from moving forward or thinking innovatively about what reforms can be next in Texas.”

Learn more about our Texas members here.

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