Why Community-Based Programming Will Help to Reimagine the Future of the Juvenile Justice System

By Greg MacPherson

The current structure of our juvenile justice system is not working as effectively as possible with its limited resources and we need to make significant changes for the future of our youth. After seeing the continued success of Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program in rehabilitating and positively redirecting justice-involved youth, our team wanted to look deeper into the current workings of the juvenile justice system and find more opportunities to keep young people out of the cycle of reoffending. What we discovered was a major gap between youth who go directly from juvenile detention back to their lives and those who are referred to programs where they’re given time and space to work through the root causes that lead youth to make certain choices. 

Big Thought Institute, our consulting and research group from Big Thought, created a white paper report that reviews research surrounding the demographics, outcomes and costs of youth entering the juvenile justice system, including a specific look at Dallas and Tarrant Counties. We then identified the opportunity to expand community-based programming and get more youth on a better path after dealing with the results of their choice based on our success with Creative Solutions. 

The goal of Big Thought Institute is to partner with organizations in designing and improving innovative, evidence-based learning solutions. This means not only sharing what we’ve currently learned from our own experiences, but continuing to research issues impacting the young people in our community, brainstorm new solutions and share our findings. While Big Thought is an education-focused organization, we believe it’s crucial to consider anything that might impact the success of youth in school and beyond with a driving emphasis on social emotional learning and restorative practice methods. We created this white paper with that in mind.

In our research, which focuses on the juvenile justice systems in Texas with a specific look at Dallas and Tarrant Counties, we found that our detention centers are overcrowded, have high rates of recidivism and are costly to maintain. In several states, as many as 80% of youth who have been involved in the juvenile system reoffend within three years. Our research also showed that placing youth in incarceration for longer periods of time increases the risk for reoffense and self-harm. 

On top of the detrimental effects of placing youth in incarceration, it’s also a huge expense. In Texas, the average cost for confinement of a young person is more than $175,039 per year. If we look at alternative solutions like probationary suspension, the average cost is just $100 per day. Not only could we help redirect the lives and futures of our youth – based on these numbers, if only 50 additional youth per year were diverted through probation rather than placed in detention, the potential cost savings is $513,000.

We determined that while detention may be necessary in certain circumstances, it is not the outcome we envision for youth and it is not necessarily effective on its own. Our juvenile justice systems have potentially more effective alternatives outside of incarceration, yet 73% of Dallas County Juvenile Department (DCJD) and Tarrant County Juvenile Services (TCJS) referrals resulted in a detention admission in 2020. Diversion referrals with opportunities to participate in community-based rehabilitation programming have above an 80% successful completion rate, but only 5% of DCJD referrals in 2020 were served by these programs. Within that small percentage, only one of the referrals was identified as a high risk youth, meaning they’re at a higher risk to reoffend. This is incredibly disappointing considering that the estimated value of saving a high risk juvenile from a life of crime is up to $5.3 million.

There is a significant opportunity for more juvenile justice systems to divert youth from detention centers and place them in programs that give youth the tools to lead a better life. For systems like DCJD and TCJS that are already utilizing community-based programs as part of diversion and probation referrals, there’s a significant opportunity to expand their availability. This gap between opportunity and reality could be due to the lack of education about the success of community-based programs, or a lack of funding to create enough programs to support the large amount of youth passing through the juvenile justice system. We believe that if we are able to fund more community-based programs for youth – on top of intervention programs and recreation opportunities in and out of school – we could create more positive outcomes for these young people and reduce the rate of recidivism.

Community-based programs as a diversion or probationary referral are more likely to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system. Rather than providing a punishment without direction, these programs give young people a chance to address the underlying causes of their behavior, getting to the root of the issue and discovering positive methods to cope with emotions and challenges. With these tools, youth are more likely to stay out of the juvenile justice system and pave a brighter path for their future.

We know these programs work because we’ve seen it first hand with Creative Solutions. Big Thought’s “arts-as-workforce” program has been incredibly successful with rehabilitating youth who have been involved in the juvenile justice system, giving them a safe place to channel their feelings and struggles through the arts. Creative Solutions has been proven to help improve their job skills, form a positive self-image and increase social and emotional development.

Participating in Creative Solutions has resulted in a successful completion rate of 84% between the years of 2017 and 2020, of which only 5% of youth reoffended. Creative Solutions is also one of the only programs to accept those the juvenile justice system deems as high risk youth. In fact, over half of our program is made up of youth who have been identified as high risk and it still reached those successful rates. 

If we could accept all youth who are justice-involved into Creative Solutions, we would in a heartbeat. Unfortunately that isn’t possible, so we’re sharing our findings on the potential to reshape the juvenile justice system in the hope of restoring the future of young people. One mistake should not define their entire lives. We encourage you to download our white paper on A Case for More Youth Justice Programming to learn more about the opportunity to engage more youth in community-based programming like Creative Solutions.