Soundings

Peter Reinharz
Juvenile Justice—Texas Style
Spring 1998

Even though violent crime rates keep falling, one group stubbornly resists the trend: juvenile offenders. Blame the juvenile justice system, which by explaining away crime as a by-product of root causes, best dealt with through counseling and social change rather than punishment, gives kids the sense that they can get away with, well, murder. Recently, however, many states—including Texas—have begun to question the received wisdom on teen crime, and the juvenile crime statistics are starting to improve.

According to the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, Governor George W. Bush's new juvenile justice laws—featuring longer sentences, more young thugs tried as adults, and a crackdown on teens who commit crimes while on probation—have cut the state's juvenile violent crime rate 12 percent in 1996 from the preceding year. The state's teen population rose 1.4 percent at the same time, making the drop even more significant. In New York, which lacks a Texas-style policy, juvenile violent crime rates show little decline. In contrast to most states, which want to try young thugs as adults more often, New York focuses on discredited and trivial matters. The Assembly's recent juvenile justice bill is a case in point. It pullulates with "legislative findings" that blame crime on underlying forces. The Assembly thinks, for example, that "the ever changing mix of skills required by firms to compete in the global economy yields particular disadvantage to youth that lack the skills or flexibility to learn new skills." So globalization causes youth crime. The Assembly's response? You guessed it: "youth development programs in order to save the next generation"—exactly the kind of programs crime "experts" proposed for decades while crime rates skyrocketed.

The Assembly shouldn't continue 35 years of failed social policy. Instead, it ought to look at a state getting results: in Texas they know that jailed offenders, teens included, don't commit crimes.

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