"Young adults develop an accelerator long before they can steer and brake."
-Ronald Dahl, MD pediatrician and developmental psychologist
-Ronald Dahl, MD pediatrician and developmental psychologist
Justice-involved young adults, ages 17-24, are a common, distinct, and misunderstood population that requires a community-based, multi-disciplinary intervention to address the factors that contributed to their involvement with the criminal justice system. The current criminal justice response of relentless punishment is failing young adults, who make up only 11% of Texas, yet account for over 29% of arrests. This age group has the highest short-term recidivism rate of any age group, routinely exceeding 75%, and young adults sentenced to a term of probation are revoked at a rate three times higher than older adults. The current approach is especially failing young adults of color whose incarceration rates are 9 times greater than their white counterparts.
Recent research in neurobiology and psychology demonstrates that young adulthood is a distinct period of development, with significant cognitive and emotional intelligence changes occurring into the mid-twenties, suggesting young adults share many of the same characteristics as juveniles. In addition to these findings, young adults' involvement with the justice system is also intricately tied to their health outcomes: the majority has at least one diagnosable mental health disorder, untreated and unrecognized trauma, and is more likely than other age groups to have substance use disorders. Compounding these developmental factors, justice-involved young adults face significant challenges, such as chronic unemployment, homelessness and housing insecurity, involvement with the child protection and foster care systems, and lack basic academic and work readiness skills, which also further disrupt and slow healthy brain development and increase their risk for justice system-involvement. However, like juveniles, young adults are also especially susceptible to change, and individualized, community-based interventions can set them on the right path.
Texas needs to develop a community-based, integrated intervention that is developmentally appropriate to address the underlying factors that contributed to young adults’ involvement with the criminal justice system. Serving young adults in their communities is cheaper and leads to better outcomes, and in the long-term, the proposed program model could reduce the costly reliance on incarceration and promote the efficient use of public services for young adults in order to reduce the likelihood of young adults continuing to cycle in and out of the criminal justice system.
LSJA will introduce an alternative for justice-involved youth and emerging adults by designing and implementing innovative strategies for maximizing the supports and services needed to keep youth in the community where their needs are better met at a lower cost to the state.
The approach will be modeled after the recommendations of those proposed in From Retribution to Public Safety: Disruptive Innovation of American Criminal Justice, by William Kelly, Judge Robert Pitman, and William Streusand. The elements of the proposed program are subject to negotiation with local stakeholders who will provide input into program design. LSJA will work with those stakeholders to design a process and community-based infrastructure for diverting young adults out of the criminal justice system and into a multi-disciplinary program structured to identify and address the unmet needs of program participants that contributed to their involvement in the criminal justice system in order to reduce the likelihood of their recidivism.
Eligible participants will be young adults, ages 17-24, charged with a felony offense in the adult criminal justice system. In lieu of traditional adult court adjudication, the faculty and students from UTHealth's School of Public Health will conduct a needs assessment to identify the supports participants’ need to succeed without court intervention. A panel of experts then will review results from participants’ needs assessments to develop an individual treatment and service plan targeted to the interventions necessary to address participants’ unmet needs. Programs that have provided similar treatment plans have seen recidivism rates plummet from 75% to 10%.
Collaboration is key to the success of this model and LSJA is committed to coordinating rather than duplicating existing services. LSJA’s collaborative partners will provide treatments and interventions necessary to address their unmet needs and to mitigate the factors that contributed to their involvement with the justice system. The program model that LSJA envisions requires integrating existing social services in order to breakdown the silos that prevent the delivery of community-based comprehensive care to the most at-risk, high needs young adults. Collaboration is key to this model. LSJA has existing partnerships with leading experts in the criminal justice, health and social services fields:
- The University of Texas's Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research
- The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health
- University of Texas Steve Hicks School of Social Work
- Goodwill Industries Central Texas
- Bluebonnet Trails Community Services
- Jail to Jobs
- City Square
- Texas Criminal Justice Coalition
- Texas Public Policy Foundation
- The Justice Lab at Columbia University School of Social Work
LSJA's model requires that its leadership team have lived experience and share similar characteristics of participants. LSJA is designing an advisory board comprised of a diverse group of organizations, research institutions and community providers to guide program design and decision-making during implementation. Members on the board include individuals with lived behavioral health and justice-system experience.
Research and Evaluation
LSJA partnered with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health to create a tool to survey justice- and non-justice involved young adults who are accessing community-based services at Tony's Place, a drop-in center in Houston for young adults who identify as LGBTQ+, and the Young Adult Resource Center at the Salvation Army-Houston. The survey will identify the needs of this age group and the resiliency factors that reduce their risk of justice system involvement and will provide the preliminary data needed to design and validate a needs assessment tailored to justice-involved young adults.
LSJA has also partnered with researchers at the Texas A&M Public Policy Research Institute, Harvard's Access to Justice Lab, and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health to design and conduct a randomized control trial (RCT) in order to track participants’ health and criminal justice outcomes. Results from the RCT will be disseminated to stakeholders and to researchers and experts at local, state, and national conferences.
Goals and Outcomes
Lone Star Justice Alliance’s Transformative Justice Program will:
- Ensure that young people’s medical, mental health, educational, housing, and income needs are identified through multi-disciplinary teams;
- Provide cross-system solutions to ensure that the entire community is responding to the crises affecting young people;
- Promote a culture change within delivery systems and reduce racial and ethnic disparities; and
- Ensure that young people understand and assert their rights to timely, meaningful, and appropriate medical, mental health, and educational services in the community.