Thanks, But No Thanks

Turning down millions in state money to build juvenile boot camps, Tarrant County opted for a different approach--one that works

Rachel wanted some pretty things for her new baby. She didn't have money or a job, so she bought her infant's new clothes with a stolen credit card. Even though at 16 she's already a mother of two, by law Rachel is a juvenile, which was about the only good thing she had going for her six months ago when she was convicted of credit card fraud--that and the fact she committed her crime in Tarrant County.

Because it was her first offense and the misdeed was not violent, she drew a probated sentence and was put into the nonprofit Tarrant County Advocate Program. The program, under contract with the juvenile probation department, provides a community-based alternative to confinement in a Texas Youth Commission facility.

T-CAP's intensive "wrap-around" plan lasts typically five to six months and works with the whole family, if there is one, director Tiwana Bell says. T-CAP provides at-risk kids daily mentoring, academics, on-the-job employment training, counseling, sex education and group therapy. It helps them and their families connect to an array of social services and surrounds the family with a support system that will be "solidly in place once the kids are on their own," Bell says.

The Tarrant County Advocate Program's Tiwana Bell says the kids "know our door is always open."
Francine Sustaita
The Tarrant County Advocate Program's Tiwana Bell says the kids "know our door is always open."

Rachel is one of their success stories. "She's a real good mother and a hard worker" who now has her GED and has stayed out of trouble. That doesn't mean she's home free, says Bell, who has a master's degree in social work and has been dealing with troubled kids for 13 years.

As with most of the youths who go through the program, the conditions that landed Rachel in court are still in place: poverty, immaturity and an overwhelmed social-service system. She married the father of her children, but he, too, is only 16. They live in the Cavile public housing project in Fort Worth's Stop Six neighborhood, a predominantly minority area marked by pockets of high unemployment, home to the poorest of Fort Worth's poor. He has a minimum-wage job, but she can no longer work because she lost her baby sitter. She's on the waiting list for subsidized day care, which could be a year away.

Still, Bell believes Rachel will not show up in the criminal justice system again because of the survival tools that T-CAP gave her. "She responded; she never missed a counseling or a mentoring session; she showed up on time for work every day; she has a support system. Now she knows she's not alone. Even though she's out of the program, officially," Bell says, "we try and keep up with these kids. They know our door is always open."

Rachel's opportunity to stay at home with her kids and turn her life around instead of being locked up is primarily the result of a controversial decision made five years ago. Today that decision is being heralded as one that has made Tarrant County's juvenile justice system a "guiding light for reform" for the nation.

In 1995, Texas counties were looking to divvy up a $37.5 million windfall from the Texas Legislature, to be used for construction of local boot camps for juvenile offenders between the ages of 10 and 16. The idea was to keep more delinquent kids in the county where the offense occurred--at county expense--and free the overburdened Texas Youth Commission to deal with more dangerous, violent offenders.

Seven of the state's most populous counties were set to get half of the total amount, with Tarrant County's share somewhere around $4.5 million. In the face of critics who would later accuse the county of being soft on juvenile crime, Tarrant County said no thanks. It was the only local government body in Texas to do so.

Two overriding factors drove the decision, says Carey Cockerell, director of juvenile services in the county since 1984 and a former 13-year employee of TYC. With the blessing of the Tarrant County juvenile board, which is made up of all the county's district judges, Cockerell did some research before accepting the money.

First, he looked into boot camps elsewhere and found that they "weren't very successful." Keeping kids in their homes or in foster care and working with them in a variety of comprehensive programs that included their families, churches, schools and social services worked as well or better than the boot camps, he found. Three years down the line, after kids left the camp, Cockerell says, there was no difference in their rate of recidivism from that of kids who were treated in community-based programs. In some cases it was higher for the boot camp graduates.

Coupled with that fact was the long-term cost of the boot camp option.

The state's money had strings and restrictions. Its use was limited to the construction of the boot camps only, Cockerell says. The county would have to assume all operational costs, including staffing, for the duration of the camps' life, which according to the state's other requirement, would be 20 years. Cockerell and his staff estimated that costs to the county over that time would be between $70 million and $80 million. The literature on boot camps and their outcomes, he said, didn't support such spending, especially in exchange for a mere $4.5 million from the state.

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