As if in answer to a Tarrant County uproar from people who want a 16-year-old Keller boy thrown in prison for causing a drunken crash that killed four people in June, one of the most conservative groups in Texas has issued a report that shows what a bad idea that tends to be.One reason, says the report released Tuesday by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the National Juvenile Justice Network, is that juvenile lockups across the U.S. produce hardened criminals who are a dreadful burden on society later in life.The report updates a similar one the two groups released in June, detailing nationwide trends in juvenile justice. The dominant trend, in which Texas is a leader, since 2001, has been steering kids away from incarceration toward proven, community-based treatment programs.As long ago as the early 20th century, the June report said, juvenile justice reformers advanced a then-revolutionary idea that “children are fundamentally different from adults and, as a result, youth who commit offenses should be treated differently by the criminal justice system … especially with respect to culpability and the potential for rehabilitation.”None of this is hard for parents to understand: Kids do really stupid things sometimes, and they do them later in life than many parents might hope. But they grow out of it.Much academic, neurological and psychological research has shown that adolescents don’t have fully-formed decision-making ability, are vulnerable to external coercion and lack mature character traits, says the June report.As one 2007 Associated Press article put it, research “indicates the adolescent brain is still maturing in the teen years and reasoning and judgment are developing well into the early to mid 20s.”Most teen brains, in other words, are a work in progress.Since 2000, community-based alternatives to incarceration have shown they “not only avoid the short-term and long-term negative impacts of imprisonment, but also substantially reduce the rate of reconnection with the criminal justice system. In the process, future crime is avoided, and more youth are put on the path to productive, law-abiding lives.”For the 15-year period prior to 2000, the nationwide trend favored locking away juveniles, even for misdemeanors and truancy. Key states then began to adopt community-based treatment, and by 2011 the number of youths in criminal lockups declined 41 percent, to a nationwide total of 61,423, the figures updated in this week’s report show.At the same time, juvenile arrests are down, meaning something must be working.Texas joined that trend in 2007, adopting more juvenile justice reforms than most states. The state held 4,671 incarcerated youths in 2011, a 45 percent reduction since 2001.From 2007 through 2011, Texas closed nine juvenile justice facilities. Another reform law passed by the Legislature in 2011 required that one more facility be closed.The state currently runs six juvenile justice facilities. Others are operated by counties.The 2011 law combined the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission into a newly created state Juvenile Justice Department, which is required to give priority to proven community programs over large, state-run lockups.These measures have enjoyed broad, bipartisan support, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and National Juvenile Justice Network say.Their report says a 2011 national poll of 1,000 adults found “77 percent of respondents preferred rehabilitation over incarceration for youth.”The poll results also showed “more than 80 percent of self-identified moderates and liberals, and more than 70 percent of conservatives, favored rehabilitation.”So, how does this fit the case of the Keller 16-year-old who caused four deaths?State District Judge Jean Boyd, whose 19 years on the Tarrant County Juvenile Court bench have brought her the worst of the worst juvenile defendants, has examined this kid’s character and has decided he deserves a chance at rehabilitation.His character is a work in progress. Incarceration would hurt, not help.
Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9