In the third-most-populous county in America, the time for merely talking about youth justice reform is over.
Earlier this month, Harris County, Texas, home of Houston, committed $4 million to fund the first year of a “bold” new pilot program that aims to shift the focus from locking up kids who get in trouble with the law to investing in community solutions to prevent crime.
Other U.S. jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County, are also launching similar efforts amid the Black Lives Matter movement, but Harris is the first county in law-and-order Texas to take such a step.
The idea is to put the $4 million into the Youth Justice Community Investment Fund for community-based, community-designed programs in the neighborhoods where most of the kids who are at risk of going to juvenile lockups live. That means Black and Latino communities: As of Feb. 8, a massively disproportionate 98% of those in juvenile detention in Harris County were Black or Latino.
The county is currently facilitating the creation of a broad-based organization that will design the system under a contract with the county Justice Administration Department and measure the results. Then the “backbone organization” will contract with Houston area grassroots providers. If the pilot is deemed successful, the county plans to make it a continuing program.
For now, half of the initial $4 million budget will come out of this year’s unspent Youth Probation Department funds and the rest from the general fund.
The initiative will seek to prevent youth and families from entering poverty-driven systems by re-engaging them with job and school opportunities and supporting them with services like mental health and stable housing.
As in most places, the number of detained youth has fallen in recent years, in part as a result of a conscious effort to divert kids whenever possible.
COVID-19 has also played a role in reducing the number of locked-up children. In the first couple of months of the pandemic (March and April 2020), admissions dropped by 11%, and the total number of youth in detention fell by more than 40%. As of Feb. 8, 124 youth were in custody.
“The Reinvestment Fund is part of a groundbreaking vision for youth justice — a vision that institutions do not own. Instead of maintaining the punitive status quo, this fund will help to directly invest in the communities that are home to many Black and Latinx youth and families that have been neglected for far too long,” said Assata Richards of the Redefining Youth Justice Coalition.