AUSTIN (KXAN) — During his campaign for president, Joe Biden promised to funnel $1 billion dollars a year towards reforming the juvenile justice system and keeping youth out of adult correctional facilities.
As his team continues the transition into the White House, advocates are identifying ways those funds could make changes in the Texas.
The Biden Campaign outlined the following initiatives in 2019:
- Push for more funding under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. This legislation supports state and local juvenile justice departments in return for these states fulfilling certain requirements, including “addressing the disproportionate representation of children of color in the juvenile justice system.”
- Create a new grant program for states for in-person support for kids. This initiative will begin as a $100-million pilot program in 15-30 states and counties, urging states to place non-violent youth in community-based alternatives to prison and repurpose empty youth lockups for use as community centers.
Kameron Johnson, the Travis County Public Defender, told KXAN that federal funds and grants often get held up at the state level, utilized by the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice or by the state for the prosecution of accused juveniles.
“I’m going to be one to do everything I can to make sure there’s the follow through and we can get some of those monies down to the local level,” he said.
Last week, the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice awarded more than $221 million to state and local governments, as well as private organizations.
According to the OJJDP, these grants include $84.9 million to fund mentoring programs and services for youth. Another $11 million will fund gang prevention efforts and nearly five million to fund services for mental health assistance and substance abuse disorders.
A portion of the funds will support juvenile indigent defense, but it totals less than one percent of the efforts.
Johnson’s office faced budget cuts due to the pandemic this year, so he said federal assistance would be critical.
Next year, Johnson hopes to see more money designated towards defending kids in court and opening Juvenile Public Defenders offices, like his, across the state.
Still, he said positive to see the emphasis placed on mentorship and development for kids in the system. He said the biggest priority is keeping kids out of the justice system altogether, with drug treatment programs and community outreach programs.
“If we address these issues on the front end than we can do a lot better job. It will be more cost-savings, than building these costly statewide juvenile justice facilities,” he said.
Local advocate Nic Hollins said he can speak to how influential a mentor can be for a juvenile in the criminal justice system. Like many teenagers, he said his story began with one mistake.
“I was out hanging out at a club when I wasn’t supposed to be,” he said.
When shots rang out at that New Mexico club, Hollins was hurt. Another person involved in the shooting died. In the chaos, Hollins said he grabbed a firearm that had been stored in the car he arrived in with a few older friends and family members.
“While I’m laying there bleeding, the paramedics show up on the scene. They got me up, but they had to tell police that I was in possession of a handgun,” he said. “It was a very traumatic experience, to go from being a victim to then being an offender, from doing something I perceived as self-defense.”
He said he understood he had committed a crime and spent time behind bars at a juvenile detention center. As a senior in high school, while recovering from his injuries and attempting to get back on track, a mentor introduced him to computer science and gave him access to technology.
“That totally made the difference for me,” Hollins said. “It’s how I sustain myself and my family to this day. It gave me something to work towards and something I could see as sustainable.”
Years later, he uses those skills on a daily basis as the Chief Technology Officer for the Austin-based data and advocacy non-profit called MEASURE.
“With data, we are able to take our emotion and anecdotal experiences out of the argument or discussion, and put that data forward to see what is the best policy position, what’s best fiscally,” he said. “Oftentimes, a lot of the unfair treatment and processes and policies that we have in place in our judicial system lead to costing taxpayers more money, frankly.”
Hollins hopes to see these grants utilized to fund less institutional positions and more community-based advocates — like professional development mentors and mental health counselors.
“It sets off a cycle of events. A lot of times that has an impact in how they see themselves in our society,” he said.
Hollins went on to say, “It should be non-partisan. Children are loved by everybody, and as cliche as it is, they are our future. I think if we get it right early, we stand a better chance at having systemic criminal justice reform as well.”