Youths involved with Harris County’s youth 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. Unfortunately, there is not a reliable body of research that outlines the consequences of these decisions in shaping these paths or the complex ways in which they interact with each other.
This research agenda, which will encompass multiple projects and is part of our long-term partnership with HCJPD, aims to quantitatively characterize the multiple decisions that affect the youth in the system and rigorously evaluate the consequences of these decisions. Moreover, the research will focus on how these decisions differentially affect particular groups of youths (age, race, ethnicity etc.). This information will allow the HCJPD leadership, in conjunction with other stakeholders and actors in the system, to assess whether the way in which the system has been operating is consistent with their vision for youth justice in Harris County.
In our first project, we characterized the experiences of young people who were involved with the Harris County Juvenile Justice System. Our analysis of the detailed histories of over 21,000 youths, born between 2000 and 2002, 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.
Future work will expand on this descriptive work and evaluate the consequences of specific decisions made within the Juvenile Justice System, identify how these decisions contribute to exacerbate racial disparities in the system, and develop tools to target early interventions to prevent young people in Harris County from cycling through the system.