Houston Democratic Senator John Whitmire was in the national spotlight last Tuesday doing something Democratic Lawmakers in Texas don't get to do very often. He was bragging about work done in the Texas Legislature.
In a room packed with more than 150 juvenile justice leaders and congressional staff at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington D.C., Senator Whitmire spoke about the innovative programs Texas has adopted to reduce recidivism and keep children in their communities and schools. Whitmire was selected by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, as one of four panelists to speak about improving outcomes for youth involved in the justice system.
In his presentation (which you can watch below the jump) Senator Whitmire, who is the head of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, confessed that challenges in the adult criminal justice system had absorbed most of the attention of Texas Lawmakers until discovery of sexual abuse at a youth lockup six years ago elevated the relatively small juvenile justice system to a top-of-the agenda priority. “The bottom line is that we were overwhelmed with an adult problem,” explained Whitmire “Since that scandal which brought it to our attention, we have spent around the clock trying to reform the system.”
Read more below the jump.
One of the juvenile justice reforms Whitmire discussed was the decreased use of state institutions to confine juvenile offenders. When lawmakers assessed deficiencies in the youth lockup system, Whitmire explained, they discovered that 12-year-olds were commingled with 18-year-olds. There was no classification by offense, which meant that misdemeanants were locked up with more serious offenders. And juveniles were locked up in youth prisons as many as nine hours from their families and courts.
Senator Whitmire said that the first step in reforming the system was prioritizing who would be sent to state institutions. And because rural communities were ill-equipped to offer drug and alcohol programs, educational opportunities, and psychiatric treatment, they decided to keep as many individuals as possible close to their communities. The State of Texas had 5,000 youth confinees several years ago. Today, because of reforms Whitmire helped put in place, they have less than 1,100.
In his speech, Senator Whitmire also suggested that Texas' suspension rates for minor offenses had resulted in millions in unnecessary spending.
“It robs these children of any chance of fulfilling their potential, as they fall into a cycle of arrest and incarceration that can last for the rest of their lives,” said Senator Whitmire. “We have to do better on a state and federal level in addressing how our school discipline policies improve school safety and promoting a positive learning environment.”
Senator Whitmire specifically took issue with the criminalization of truancy behavior and disorderly conduct by telling stories that made the laws allowing such ticketing seem absurd in practice. He told the audience about a 14-year-old girl from Houston who had received a citation for not going to school. Upon investigation, a case manager discovered that the girl was pregnant and wasn't able to attend class because she didn't have maternity clothes. Whitmire also mentioned an incident where a police officer who had written a disorderly conduct ticket for a 10-year-old.
Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an organization that has successfully lobbied for many of the smart-on-crime-reforms in Texas,has prepared annual legislative wrap-ups of the specific juvenile justice system reforms made during each session since 2005 on its website. TCJC also conveniently prepared a brief recent history of the Juvenile Justice System in Texas.
As Texas adopts smarter, less-costly, more compassionate alternatives to mass incarceration of troubled youth, it is becoming a model of reform for states that, like us, have for far too long relied on incarceration to solve every social ill.