This course examines the policy development process through the lens of juvenile justice. All around the United States, policy-makers are trying to improve the operations of their states’ juvenile justice systems. Guided by both fiscal concerns and research indicating that juveniles are best served in community-based programs, policy-makers are beginning to emphasize local responsibility for juvenile justice rather than state-level incarceration. There is also an increasing emphasis on prevention and rehabilitative services, even as the juvenile systems around the country still function under laws and policies designed during the “tough on crime” period in the 1990s. At the same time, the United States Supreme Court is changing its views about juvenile sentencing, recently eliminating mandatory application of life without parole sentences for youth under age 18 and establishing that “children are different” than adults for criminal justice purposes.
Because youth justice systems are in such tremendous flux, they provide a perfect vehicle for us to examine the various components of the policy development process. We will focus on four “case studies” of shifting youth justice policies, with two or three-week modules on each topic:
The decarceration of youth confinement facilities;
The “raise the age” movement to set 18, rather than 16 or 17, as the age when youth become adults for criminal justice purposes;
Life without parole and extreme sentencing of youth; and
School discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline.
The massive changes that have occurred (or that have failed to occur) in each of these areas of focus have been the result of a variety of influences and considerations. We will learn about the legislative process (both formal processes and informal fiat); the role of executive branch agencies; the role of the courts and constitutional requirements; the influence of advocacy groups and social justice campaigns; the importance of research and data; budgeting and financial considerations; and the impact of scandals and media coverage. The reality is that good policy doesn’t “just happen”; it is the product of a deliberate process that can be influenced but rarely controlled.
To better understand how these factors have combined to affect policy change in each of the areas of focus, we will gather information from a variety of sources. Our readings will include policy reports, book chapters, news articles, research articles, legislation, court opinions, data analyses, and fiscal notes. We will watch archived video of legislative hearings and attend contemporaneous hearings at the Texas Legislature if the opportunity arises. And to deepen our analysis, we will interview or have guest presentations by various stakeholders who have been intimately involved in the policy development process in each of these focus areas.
We will also have role-playing exercises in which students prepare oral legislative testimony on a particular topic, taking on the persona of various stakeholders in the policy debate, while other students stand in the role of legislators.
Students in this course will gain skills in policy analysis, as well as become better prepared to participate effectively in the policy-making process as legislative staffers, policy analysts, advocates, or citizens. They will also learn a great deal about youth justice issues, in Texas and beyond.
The course will have a heavy reading load, but the material will all be interesting and accessible. Students will be evaluated on the basis of class participation, a policy memo, their legislative testimony, and a final team research and writing project. There may also be some shorter writing assignments, some of which may not be graded. There is no exam.
This seminar is open to students in both the LBJ School and the Law School and is cross-listed in both schools.