Testifying before the Texas House Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform, Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. President Gary Ivory said neighborhood-based wraparound services could be a safe, effective alternative to incarcerating Texas youth. His testimony came as state lawmakers are considering raising the age of criminal responsibility in Texas from 17 to 18. Ivory’s recommendation followed testimony about Texas Juvenile Justice Department facilities that are understaffed, compromising the mission to rehabilitate children currently in care, with no capacity to accept 18-year-olds.
Testimony for the Texas House Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform Submitted by Gary ivory, President, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. August 24, 2022 (Hear his virtual testimony at 3:47:30 here or read below)
Good morning. My name is Gary Ivory and I serve as the President of Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP). I am pleased to provide testimony based on YAP’s three decades of experience providing alternatives to incarceration, neighborhood violence reduction, behavioral health and child welfare services in the State of Texas. YAP is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to developing alternatives to institutional placement (jails, secure detention, psychiatric hospitals, group homes, youth prisons, etc.) since 1975. YAP’s mission is to develop safe and cost-effective alternatives to out-of-home placement by using an array of evidence -based approaches. YAP operates programs in 34 states and Washington, D.C.
In 1992, Carey Cockerell, former Director of Tarrant County Juvenile Services, brought YAP to Tarrant County using “community corrections” funding. YAP targeted areas of Tarrant County with the highest recidivism rates and commitments to the Texas Youth Commission as it was referred to at the time. Since 1992, our programs have expanded to contract with juvenile probation departments in Dallas, Tarrant, Harris, Johnson, Jefferson, Matagorda, Calhoun and Brazoria counties. We work in each of these counties to develop alternatives to secure detention; help young people successfully complete probation; reduce recidivism and prevent commitments to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. To date, 86 % of young people successfully complete our programs.
The core of our approach is to work with young people who have the most complex needs. Typically, the youth that we serve across Texas are on probation, have some form of court-ordered supervision; are involved in the child welfare system or who have complex mental health and/or substance use challenges. We assign each young person an “Advocate” or “Paid Mentor” who spends an average of 10 hours a week with the youth and his/her family. Advocates live in the same neighborhoods and their assigned youth and carry out an individualized plan that addresses the unique needs of the assigned youth/family. We know that “cookie cutter” approaches don’t work with high-risk/high-need young people. Youth are often afforded an opportunity to have paid work experiences through our Supported Work program. Across Texas, YAP has over 50 employers who employ our youth. We also provided scholarships to many young people through our Endowment Fund. 86-90% of youth successfully complete our programs.
YAP also contracts with the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) to provide comprehensive behavioral health services for children and youth who have complex psychiatric/mental health challenges. We operate programs in Dallas, Tarrant, Travis and Harris counties. We provide services to over 1, 000 young people and their families annually. The young people that we serve would be in psychiatric hospitals and/or residential treatment centers without YAP’s intervention. This is important because a large percentage of young people in the juvenile justice system in Texas have a mental health diagnosis. Getting young people early behavioral health supports reduces recidivism and improves the overall well-being of young people.
I will share two examples of the impact that YAP has had in Texas over the past three decades:
- The Tarrant County, Texas : The former Probation Chief, Carey Cockerell, brought YAP to Tarrant County under a contract with Tarrant County Juvenile Services using what was referred to at the time as “Community Corrections” funding. During our first year of operating the program, YAP helped reduce commitments to the Texas Youth Commission at the time by 44%. Tarrant County still commits low numbers of young people to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department in comparison to other large cities in Texas. This is in large part due to the strong continuum of care for juveniles in Tarrant County.
- Harris County, Texas: Another example is the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. Former Chief Elmer Bailey brought YAP’s model to Harris County in 2000. At the time, Harris County was spending over $8 million a year through Harris County general operating funds to remove youth from the home and place them in residential treatment facilities. In 2004, an evaluation was done by Dr. Ron Rhea. The study showed that 86% of the young people served did not recidivate. Additionally, the placement budget went down from $8 million a year down to less than $1 million a year.
I want to highlight two states that made the decision to shift resources from youth prisons to home and community-based interventions. Kansas shifted resources from youth prisons to community-based interventions. This effort has saved the State of Kansas $72 million. The State of Georgia instituted a similar plan starting in 2012 and projected savings of over $85 million over a 5 year period. This also avoided the significant cost of building two new secure care juvenile facilities. These states have proven that reducing populations in youth prisons and diverting young people to community- based alternatives both saves money and enhances public safety.
YAP suggests a few policy recommendations that will help to decrease recidivism, improve public safety and save taxpayer dollars:
- Recommendation 1: Pilot and fund a robust continuum of care to return youth safely home from TJJD facilities. A large number of youth can be returned safely home with intensive wraparound support. This can be done at a fraction of the cost of confining young people in TJJD and/or county facilities. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is funding states to close and reduce the size of youth prisons across the United States. Texas can redirect these dollars to home and community-based alternatives, such as YAP, that have a proven track record.
- Recommendation 2: Raise the age of majority in Texas to age 18. Most states have already taken action to raise the age of majority. We can do this without jeopardizing public safety.
In summary, we have evidence about what works to rehabilitate young people involved in the juvenile justice system in Texas. Models such as YAP that offer intensive mentoring to youth/families; offers young people an opportunity to heal from trauma, get behavioral health support and work experience are critical to rehabilitating young people. We need models that provide 24/7 support for youth in crisis and provide a holistic, wraparound approach and building a continuum of care that provides critical support to young people and their families. We can do this at a fraction of the cost of incarceration and achieve positive outcomes without jeopardizing public safety. Thanks you so much for your time and consideration of these important issues.