In January, Williamson County was awarded a grant, via the Lone Star Justice Alliance (LSJA), to support a new program, Second Chance Community Improvement Program (SCCIP), which provides an alternative to incarceration for emerging adults.
Defined as individuals age 17-24 years, these offenders are too old for juvenile detention, but, because of their age and maturity, it is believed adult incarceration is less likely to fully rehabilitate them. Data show emerging adults represent 10 percent of our population, but make up nearly 30 percent of arrests and 21 percent of the adult prison population.
This age group is distinguished in the justice system because, as is generally understood, our brains do not fully mature until we are about 25 years old. As such, more than 75 percent of offenders in this demographic will re-offend in the short term, and their probations are revoked at a rate three times higher than older adults.
SCCIP will establish a formal process to divert young adults from "grown-up" prison after being charged with a felony offense. Individuals will be referred to and connected with myriad services that support positive health and safety outcomes most likely to reduce the need for incarceration, or recidivism.
Juvenile Services Executive Director Scott Matthew explains, "Under the law, a district attorney may only process a person arrested for possession of cocaine or meth. With this program, we can look at this as a drug problem; a symptom of something bigger, perhaps triggered by childhood trauma, so we can start by getting to the root of the issue."
Judge Stacey Mathews, 277th District Court, championed the program in Williamson County and will preside over the specialty court. Through her collaborative efforts, the program has a central site and received support from Commissioners Court and County Judge Bill Gravell. She also built new partnerships with Bluebonnet Trails, Juvenile Probation, District Attorney Shawn Dick and several private attorneys.
"This is not a halfway house, nor is it a move to be soft on crime. It is a plan to be proactive about the behavior of an individual," Judge Mathews says. "We now have the flexibility to partner with any agency or program that will provide what these young adults need. Many are disenfranchised from their parents, are parents themselves, or they may be homeless. We will find them educational resources, job skills training, mental health support; anything they might need to help them back on a path to being contributing members of our community."
County Judge Gravell said, "The Program ensures individuals most at risk for ongoing involvement with the criminal justice system are given the support they need to remain positively engaged with their communities. Critical to my vote was the commitment by our health and human service providers to address the needs of these young people in the community. Their support and willingness to tackle these issues will be essential for this program to succeed."
Participants will be assigned social workers or case managers to help them navigate their judicial and social accountabilities. "The ultimate goal," Director Matthew says, "if requirements are met, is to have the relevant charges dismissed and these young people will not have a felony conviction attached to everything they do for the rest of their lives."
Judge Mathews and Director Matthew are pleased to have been chosen by LSJA, not only for the benefit to our county but also to be part of the study that includes Dallas, to examine variations in needs and services in different demographics. Judge Mathews said, "The hypothesis is that if we identify specific services that provide the most benefit in a certain area and beef them up, they will always serve our citizen population better than prison. Services here will look different than the ones in Dallas; someone might need more education in one place, but mental health services in another. Knowing how social determinants affect our population will help everyone. As well, we consider the cost of these services a big investment, saving our taxpayers the costs of incarceration, which total about $400 daily per inmate."
Director Matthew agrees, "When we understand the demographics and diversity between a large urban city and our more suburban area, we can be better advocates for social justice, using trauma informed care, with a focus on this particular age group."
The program is still in the early stages but anyone can contribute to its success by supporting local organizations of all types that provide resources and referrals for life skills and independent living. Visit LoneStarJusticeAlliance.org for more information.