Youths involved with Harris County’s juvenile justice system interact with a number of different actors, such as juvenile probation officers, prosecutors, and judges. These actors, in turn, make a wide range of decisions – including detention, adjudication, and disposition decisions -that determine the youths’ path within the system. In this descriptive project, we characterized the experiences of young people who have been involved with the Harris County juvenile justice system. We tracked and analyzed the detailed histories of over 21,000 youths, born between 2000 and 2002, who were involved but have already “aged out” of the system.
Our analysis demonstrates that most justice-involved youths have only one contact with the system, while a small number of youths account for a disproportionately high share of referrals. At the same time, consequences become increasingly severe as these same youths become repeatedly involved with the system. To the extent that youths of color, particularly Black kids, are more likely to be detained and to receive relatively more severe dispositions than white youths during their initial contacts, these patterns have a disproportionate effect on them. Overall, these findings point to a need for targeted, early interventions and further, rigorous research to understand how we can better identify youths at risk of entering this cycle. Such interventions could potentially contribute to the reduction of racial disparities in the way the system treats and affects different groups of young people.
This project is part of our long-term partnership with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (HCJPD), in which we aim to quantitatively characterize the multiple decisions that affect the youth in the system, rigorously evaluate programs and services, and identify racial disparities throughout the system. Our research will directly inform HCJPD leadership, as well as other stakeholders, such as the Harris County Juvenile Board, as they implement policies, changes, and programs to achieve their vision for youth justice in Harris County.