[2021 Session] Ensure Success for Texas Kids Through Cost-Effective Strategies That Meet Their Needs

Policy Background

In 2006, rampant abuse in Texas’ juvenile corrections facilities was uncovered, leading to omnibus legislation1 that removed kids with misdemeanors from state secure confinement and resulted in funding being redirected toward localized rehabilitation programs. Ultimately, seven state secure facilities closed, and the number of kids incarcerated in the five remaining facilities has dropped from 5,000 to under 1,000 today.2 Yet allegations of abuse, neglect, and staffing shortages in juvenile facilities continue to plague the youth justice system.3

Despite youth arrests and incarceration rates declining for more than a decade, Texas continues to spend $175,000 each year per child in a state secure youth facility.4 But “every dollar spent on locking away children should be spent on making their communities safer and making their futures brighter.”5

In large part, this requires changes in Texas schools. Students at every grade level face disciplinary methods that can land them behind bars. The unintended consequences of punitive “zero tolerance” policies include increases in on-campus policing, which push many students — particularly the most marginalized — out of the classroom and into the youth and adult justice systems.

Traditional, punitive models of student discipline are ineffective and harmful to students and communities. Students and administrators have been calling for changes to school discipline practices because they agree that current systems are not working. Costs include higher dropout rates, education expenditures from students repeating grades, youth and adult justice system expenses, and increased costs to health and social services. One study estimated that “if policymakers could remove the entire 14 percent increase in dropouts associated with school discipline, the total lifetime savings for each student cohort would be between $750 million and $1.35 billion.”6

Proposed Solution

Approximately 40,000 kids (aged 10-16) are annually referred to juvenile probation in Texas,7 the gateway to the youth justice system. The “school- to-prison” pipeline is a key driver to the system. To reduce the number of kids who become entangled with police and in the justice system, Texas leadership should:

1. Maintain progress on youth decarceration. Texas must continue to regionalize its youth justice system by shifting funding towards smaller, local therapeutic facilities and community-based programs, where kids’ underlying needs (including mental health, substance use, trauma, and behavioral issues) can be addressed in the least restrictive setting and closer to home. This will safely reduce the number of kids in state secure facilities, lower staff-to-youth ratios in those facilities, and clear the road for closure of Texas’ youth prisons.

2. Ensure justice in schools. As the spotlight has shined more harshly on youth incarceration and the harm to children and their families — as well as shining on the need to create safe schools — measures to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline are being piloted and implemented throughout Texas to ensure that we have safe students who can reach their full potential.

Texas leadership should prioritize funding for the placement of multi-year Restorative Justice Coordinators and mental health providers, like social workers, to promote Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and restorative justice measures in schools. MTSS is a framework of evidence- based practices used to assess and support students’ needs, while also helping to mitigate student behaviors that result in disciplinary action. Restorative justice is a proven disciplinary response that focuses on repairing harm by addressing the root cause of a student’s conduct, ultimately reducing the likelihood of certain behaviors recurring. In addition to various supports within MTSS, using restorative justice methods, like group conferencing and healing circles, helps students consider the consequences of their actions and holds them accountable to the person they hurt — rather than merely sending them home via suspension or expulsion. Designated Restorative Justice Coordinators and social workers are better equipped than other personnel to handle behavioral issues stemming from trauma, academic or development challenges, or problems in a student’s home life, and they can serve as a resource to school administrators and teachers in implementing successful strategies for safe and healthy schools.9

Relevant Bills

  • For more information about restorative justice practices, click here.
  • For more information about school policing and the need to prioritize mental health supports in schools, click here.

In light of Texas’ projected budget crisis, TCJE developed 7 cost-saving solutions. Learn more about our ”Spend Your Values, Cut Your Losses" campaign here, and read the full portfolio of solutions here.

1 SB 103, Texas Senate, 80th Regular Session, Texas Legislature Online, 2007.

2 Legislative Budget Board (LBB), Monthly Tracking of Adult Correctional Population Indicators, September 2020.

3 Keri Blakinger, “‘The Place Is a Jungle’: Texas Youth Prisons Still Beset by Gangs, Violence, Abuse,” Beaumont Enterprise, January 1, 2020.

4Criminal and Juvenile Justice Uniform Cost Report, Fiscal Years 2018–2019,” LBB, January 2019.

5No Kids in Prison, 2019.

6 Russell W. Rumberger and Daniel J. Losen, “The High Cost of Harsh Discipline and Its Disparate Impact,” The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA, June 1, 2016.

7 LBB, Monthly Tracking.

8 Data provided by TJJD on September 16, 2020, in response to an open records request.

9Reversing the Pipeline to Prison in Texas: How to Ensure Safe Schools AND Safe Students,” Texas Center for Justice and Equity, 2020; Megan C. Sherman, "The School Social Worker: A Marginalized Commodity within the School Ecosystem," Children & Schools, Volume 38, Issue 3, July 2016, Pages 147–151; Lucy Sorensen, Yinzhi Shen, and Shawn D. Bushway, "Making Schools Safer and/or Escalating Disciplinary Response: A Study of Police Officers in North Carolina Schools," SSRN Electronic Journal, 10.2139/ssrn.3577645, (2020); Karen Stoiber, and Maribeth Gettinger. “Multi-Tiered Systems of Support and Evidence-Based Practices,” In: Jimerson S., Burns M., VanDerHeyden A. (eds) Handbook of Response to Intervention, Springer, Boston, MA (2016).