Rice University: Deep dive into juvenile justice data shows opportunity for targeted, early intervention

A Rice University Texas Policy Lab (TPL) analysis of juvenile justice data reveals most youths in the Harris County juvenile justice system are “one and done” — that is, they only have one interaction with it.

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The report also showed a small number of youths account for a disproportionately high number of cases. These youths fall deeper into the juvenile justice system with each additional interaction with the system, even if their offenses are not more serious. These patterns have a disproportionate effect on minority youths, especially those who are Black, according to the data.

“Historical Analysis of Lifetime Justice Involvement of Harris County Youth” is based on a review of nine years’ worth of juvenile justice data. The findings support efforts to identify youths at risk of entering this cycle early and provide targeted interventions.

Authored by a team of researchers at the TPL, the report analyzed detailed data capturing the complete juvenile justice histories of youths born between 2000 and 2002 who first came into contact with the Harris County juvenile justice system when they were 12-16 years old. Thus, the analysis reflects the system as it was experienced by youths no longer under its jurisdiction and implies any changes in the past couple of years to the system will not be captured by the report.

The findings are directly relevant to the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (HCJPD), which collaborated with the Texas Policy Lab on the report with the support of its governing body, the HCJPD Juvenile Board.

“Our study provides encouraging news to those on the front lines of our juvenile justice system,” said Diego Amador, the lead research scientist for criminal and juvenile justice at the Texas Policy Lab. “We must align our resources to help these few children, address their needs, and change their trajectory. Our analysis indicates that by doing so, and acting early, we stand our best chance of improving public safety. Just as importantly, we must continue our efforts to avoid pushing these children towards deeper parts of the system, allowing them to be better equipped to make a positive lifetime contribution to our community. We must also be mindful of historical racial inequities and design interventions in ways that help address those disparities.”

The researchers also uncovered evidence challenging the predictability of future criminal activity based on the seriousness of a youth’s first offense. Even if that first interaction was a felony, it was not necessarily linked to repeated contact for boys, and only to a moderate degree for girls. This suggests a need for a more rigorous examination of existing approaches to assess future risk.

“Many decisions shape the paths of young people who become involved in the juvenile justice system, and it is incumbent on us to deeply examine available data for insights on how those decisions affect these young people, their families and our greater community,” said Henry Gonzales, executive director of the HCJPD. “Only through a process of constant and rigorous reflection will we begin to improve outcomes for justice-involved young people and reduce racial disparities.”

“We are proud of our partnership with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, an exemplary partner willing to go the extra mile to use scientific knowledge in policymaking,” said Ekim Cem Muyan, executive director of the Texas Policy Lab. “Our work with them is a true collaboration, from developing research questions to envisioning future policy implications. This is only the first product of our partnership with them.”

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