Crime and Punishment in Texas in the 1990s

Policy Reports | Crime

No. 237
Thursday, November 30, 2000
by Morgan O. Reynolds

Juvenile Crime and Punishment

Table IV - Overall Expected Time Served per Serious Crime in Texas%2C 1960-99

"After a decline in the 1980's, overall expected punishment increased sharply in the 1990's."

In the 1994 race for governor, George W. Bush campaigned on a theme of getting tough on juvenile criminals. This was part of a nationwide movement in state government, a response to the doubling of juvenile homicide and arrest rates since the early 1980s.36 Between 1988 and 1994, juvenile arrests (highly correlated with juvenile criminal activity) in the state shot up from 100,000 to 176,000.37 During the same period, adult arrests (ages 17+) rose only 25 percent.38 While juvenile arrests for violent crimes remained a small fraction (3 percent) of juvenile arrests, this nonetheless meant that violent crimes committed by youths were increasing much faster than adult violent crime, which was on the decline. To illustrate the disparity, arrests of juveniles for violent crimes were 10 percent of those for adults in 1990, but 14 percent by 1994.39

Against this background, Gov. Bush's successful campaign propelled reform of the juvenile justice system. The state's juvenile justice code was overhauled. The state lowered to 14 the age at which youths can be tried as adults for violent crimes, expanded the use of fingerprinting and photographs to track gang members, established boot camps and "tough love" alternative schools for disruptive youths, expanded secure youth facilities, began automatic detention of youths who unlawfully carry handguns or commit a crime with a firearm and adopted tough penalties for those who sell guns to youths.40

"There has been a turnaround in juvenile crime."

The result has been a turnaround in juvenile crime. Juvenile crime as gauged by arrests peaked in 1996 and declined 16 percent in the subsequent three-year period (the most recent data are for 1999).41 Juvenile arrests for violent crimes, however, declined by slightly less, about 14 percent. Referrals to juvenile probation departments have declined for four consecutive years, down 11 percent over the period (134,000 to 119,000).

Figure XI - Texas Youth Crime and Punishment%2C 1995-99

It is hard to argue that tougher sanctions deserve zero credit for the decline in youth crime.42 Reform emphasized holding youths to stricter accountability under the rules of community supervision, and now eight of 10 sent to the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) for lockup are "supervision failures." The annual number committed to TYC facilities increased from 2,875 in 1995 to 4,353 in 1999, a 51 percent increase in only four years.43 As Figure XI shows, as the percentage of youths detained in TYC facilities rose during the Bush administration, juvenile crime declined. Violent offenders sent to TYC now serve an average of 23 months, up from 15 months in 1995.44 The proportion of youths serving more than 12 months in their initial commitment rose from 42 percent of those released in 1995 to 58 percent of those released in 1999.45

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