Reforming the Juvenile Justice System
The Texas juvenile justice system has been the subject of significant reform efforts for the last four legislative sessions, and has often dominated newspaper headlines since a scandal engulfed the state’s juvenile justice agency in 2007. Guided by both fiscal concerns and research about best practices, policy-makers have significantly downsized the state’s juvenile justice system in the last few years: many more youth are being served in community-based programs rather than state-run institutions. There is also an increasing emphasis on prevention and rehabilitative services, even as the system still functions under many laws and policies designed during the “tough on crime” period in the 1990s. Also, the Texas Legislature recently abolished the state’s longstanding juvenile justice agencies (the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission) and created a new juvenile justice structure for the state that emphasizes probation over incarceration (called the Texas Juvenile Justice Department). Other recent reforms in Texas include the closing of several state-run juvenile facilities. Yet problems in the Texas juvenile system remain: youth violence continues to be a problem; many youth still get sent to the state’s adult criminal justice system; there are limited options for mentally ill juvenile offenders; and funding is inadequate to support important therapeutic programs for youth. For the last six years, the instructor has worked closely with system stakeholders on these and other juvenile justice reform efforts. On many of these projects, she has worked with teams of students to produce important research reports on behalf of clients/stakeholders that have helped guide the course of these reforms and set the stage for new initiatives. Among the recent projects taken on by the research teams have been the following: a report on youth violence in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department; a report comparing youth transferred to the adult criminal justice system in Texas with those who remain in the juvenile system; a report on conditions for youth in adult county jails in Texas; and an analysis of a proposal to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in Texas from 17 to 18. These research reports have led to the filing of several pieces of legislation and the passage of two bills to date. Moreover, the students’ work has been influential in shaping the views and actions of policy-makers, the media, agency officials, and advocates. Students have conducted briefings of key stakeholders, including heads of agencies, and presented their findings at various statewide conferences. News articles have covered the publication of some of these reports. This is the first time this course has been offered as a year-long PRP. This structure will allow students more time to work on what has tended to be an intensive project and more time to seek to make an impact with their work. The exact nature of the research project is not known at this time, as much will depend on the outcome of the current legislative session. But the project will undoubtedly be related to some aspect of the ongoing reform efforts and will provide students a chance to interact with the state’s leading experts and key players in the juvenile justice field. The PRP will begin with several weeks of instruction covering substantive background about juvenile justice policy so that students will be grounded in the material. Initial planning for and research on the group research project will begin early in the semester, though the bulk of the research and writing will take place in the second half of the fall semester. A draft report will be completed very early in the spring semester, leaving time for substantial editing and reworking of the final product as well as efforts to shape the way the report will influence policy and practice. During the fall semester, this PRP will meet in conjunction with a juvenile justice policy seminar. The substantive topics to be covered during the fall semester will be the same for both classes. However, the seminar is a one-semester course, and seminar students will not be doing team work on the project (unlike in previous incarnations of this course). Seminar students will be engaged in individual research projects that may or may not be related to the needs of stakeholders in the juvenile justice system. This PRP is open to both first and second-year LBJ students. Second-year students with quantitative research skills are especially encouraged to consider registering for this class. Law students may register for this year-long policy course with the permission of the instructor.