State Successes in Juvenile Justice: Ohio, Texas & Connecticut

Jan Richter, Alison Waldman
August 6, 2013

“This is one of the most exciting times that I’ve experienced in juvenile justice.”
- Sen. Murphy  (D-Conn.)

It’s not easy to find feel-good stories about juvenile justice. It’s easy to despair over our high lock-up rates, our dismal facilities and lack of appropriate services, and policies that drive kids out of school and into prison for relatively minor offenses.

But juvenile justice reformers are experiencing some optimism these days, spurred by examples of successful state reform efforts, the availability of new data and tools to support effective reforms, and the appointment of Robert Listenbee to head the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

At the same time, Republicans and Democrats are finding common ground in crafting systemic reforms to cut costs and boost effectiveness. And the heads of OJJDP and the Departments of Justice and Education are collaborating on ways to help state reform efforts.

A July 30 Congressional briefing on investing in better outcomes for youth, hosted by Sen. Murphy (D-Conn.) and advocates for juvenile justice reform, explored these developments. Mr. Listenbee and Sen. Murphy were among the speakers at the briefing.

“This is one of the most exciting times that I’ve experienced in juvenile justice,” Listenbee told the Congressional staffers and others in attendance. Citing a June 2013 National Academy of Sciences guide as a great new primer of nationwide reforms, he urged Congress and states to “take developmental approach to reform.”

 “We’re moving in the right direction because a dozen states have led the way,” Sen. Murphy said. These states have “figured out there are six to seven common steps to take to divert kids out of incarceration.”

Although each state in the U.S. governs its own justice system, the road to systems involvement is “a predictable pathway” for most youth, no matter where they live. It “often starts in school,” Murphy said. Successful states, therefore, are not just reforming their juvenile justice systems, but their education systems as well.

Murphy noted that in Connecticut, it costs $14,000 to educate a student and $270,000 to house a student in custody. 

A Closer Look at State Successes

A major take-away from the briefing is that some states—like Connecticut, Ohio and Texas—are reducing their youth confinement rates dramatically.

  • Bridgeport, Connecticut took cops out of the hallways of the school and located them in the streets outside.  The result? With this single change, Bridgeport cut its expulsion rate in half.
  • Ohio has helped juvenile court judges keep adjudicated youth out of jail by providing a research-based risk assessment tool to guide placement decisions, developed by the University of Cincinnati. The Ohio Youth Assessment system has helped Ohio judges make better decisions about which kids could benefit from lower-level interventions vs. secure confinement, while maintaining public safety.
  • Connecticut’s “raise the age” campaign successfully ended laws from the 1990s that automatically drove 16 and 17 year olds into the adult criminal justice system. Connecticut has also instituted a new requirement for a specific judge’s order before putting a child in detention.
  • In Texas, youth in the system were routinely sent from urban areas to remote “out of sight, out of mind” facilities—with 12-year-olds locked up in contact with 18-year-olds, and kids in for truancy mixed up with serious offenders.  A staff sex abuse scandal six years ago spurred reforms that have included keeping kids out of such facilities and in their home communities. Texas reforms now prohibit judges from sending kids to remote facilities unless they have committed a felony. Policies that ensure the “money follows the child” have helped install these reforms by providing revenue for community-based interventions and services.

Panelists emphasized that “by reinvesting funds back into programs proven to work, states can grow even more savings by helping children become productive adults.”

Learn more:

  • The Justice Policy Institute has two new reports detailing the success in Connecticut: Common Ground and Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut.
  • The press release has more info on the briefing and the experts who spoke.
  • Watch the briefing, and join the conversation in your state:

Jan Richter is a retired clinical social worker and child psychotherapist, and long-time children's advocate and writes the SparkAction Update. Read her bio here.