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

With that kind of math, he says, a committee of the juvenile board decided the state's gift wasn't so generous after all. The county opted to continue to put its resources into an extensive array of non-lockup programs such as T-CAP; the Lena Pope Home's family intervention and preservation program; community service and restitution; drug treatment; and sending kids to the Fort Worth school district's alternative school, Pathways. The county maintains 72 pretrial detention beds at its Scott D. Moore Juvenile Justice Center on Kimbo Road in north Fort Worth (which also houses the administration offices and the juvenile courts) and a 16-bed residential center at Eagle Mountain Lake for kids with severe behavioral problems.

It also has a small unit for youths who get in trouble while on probation and are given "residential time-out" for up to 30 days, says Lyn Willis, assistant to Cockerell. Seven months ago the county added an intensive program for juvenile sex offenders in an unused "pod" in the detention center. Ten kids are under treatment there now. The department asked for money to start the program because outside facilities for youth sex offenders were falling down on the job. "They come back in a year and are offending again, right away," she says.

The department also contracts with 60 non-lockup centers of various kinds outside the county, paid for by the state's Juvenile Probation Commission from state funds apportioned to the county according to the size of its juvenile population. None is a TYC facility.

In 1996 the county added progressive sanctions to its range of options, which allow judges to increase kids' punishments each time they show up in the system, with the ultimate trip to TYC hanging over their heads if they don't straighten up.

For each delinquent in a TYC facility, Texans spend $34,000 a year, according to Texas Youth Commission figures. (A year at Houston's Rice University, by comparison, is $14,000, according to TYC's Web page.)

More than half of Tarrant's $18.2 million annual juvenile budget comes from the county, with additional funding from the state and feds. Yearly per capita spending for juvenile services is $121, compared with $195 in Dallas County. In 2000, the county prosecuted 3,164 juvenile offenders, with only 178 sent on to TYC. The rest were put on probation and into community-based programs.

"Our basic philosophy," Cockerell says, "is to keep kids in the context of the neighborhood community, as long as the public's safety isn't compromised. We think it's the best and far cheaper way to go."

Critics point to a missing link in the county's otherwise laudatory efforts to save its young at-risk kids. They can get help only if they first break the law. The real key, juvenile workers say, is getting to kids before they're in the criminal system. "In the best of all possible worlds, that's what we would do, but we don't have the resources for all that needs to be done," says Jean Boyd, presiding judge of the 323rd District Court, which hears all juvenile cases.

Still, Boyd says, the county is seen nationally as "on the cutting edge" of juvenile-justice reform. The 47-year-old judge started out with the district attorney's office in 1979 and moved to the juvenile court in the early 1980s as an associate judge under now-retired justice Scott Moore, her mentor. She and Moore both sat on the committee that chose to turn down the state's boot camp money. Time has proven it was the right decision, they say. Other states, as well as many of the Texas counties that took the money for boot camps and found no magic cure, "are sending their people here on a regular basis to take a look at what we do," Boyd says.

Moore, who sat on the 323rd district bench for more than two decades before retiring in 1993, set the tone for creative alternatives years ago, juvenile court observers say. He was known early on for sending nonviolent kids to Job Corps, for example, as an alternative to TYC. He hired Cockerell and helped develop and implement many of the programs now in place, including T-CAP. His approach toward juvenile crime, he says, had always been rehabilitation, to find alternatives to TYC or adult prison whenever possible. No matter how serious the crime, "you have to remember at all times, they're still juveniles."

Prosecutor Barbara Griffin, chief of the Tarrant County district attorney's juvenile division, says "intelligent minds differ" on how severe juvenile punishment should be. For her, crimes of violence against persons "should be dealt with severely," with intervention "as quickly as possible" on lesser crimes. Tarrant County's juvenile probation office is doing something right, she says, because her office is seeing fewer and fewer juvenile offenders come back into the system.

The most disagreement among juvenile system veterans concerns determinate sentencing, used here very little under Moore, but with increasing regularity under Boyd. The unique-to-Texas law, on the books since 1987 and updated in 1995, gives prosecutors and judges an added weapon for getting young, violent offenders off the streets without certifying them as adults. Under determinate sentencing, a kid convicted of one of a whole slew of categories of violent crimes against people, including capital murder, can be sentenced to as many as 40 years in prison. The sentences begin in a TYC facility with its emphasis on restoration and rehabilitation. If an inmate stays out of trouble, responds to the programs, gets his GED and generally turns his life around by the time he's 16, the theory goes, he can avoid the finishing schools of the state prison system.

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