Hidalgo County Youthful Offender Specialty Court Program
by Faustino Lopez, Deputy Director, Hidalgo County CSCD
In 2016 the Hidalgo County Community Supervision and Corrections Department discovered that the revocation rate of youthful offenders ages 18-25-year-olds was disproportionately overrepresented. The Hidalgo County community supervision and Corrections department, in collaboration with George Mason University, developed an Emerging Adult Strategy to reduce the likelihood of revocation of emerging adults through the use of best practice standards, age-appropriate case management strategies including swift, certain, and fair incentive and sanction structures.
The Youthful Offender Specialty Court Program provides intensive supervision while adhering to best practice standards to promote positive behaviors by addressing key emerging adult developmental issues during supervision. The program structure and design ensure that all participants begin treatment services within the first month of program placement. The Youthful Offender Court Program targets explicitly 18-25-year-old probationers scoring medium to high-risk/ high needs in the Texas Risk Assessment System (TRAS). Additionally, clinical assessments are used to determine treatment intensity for those individuals needing substance abuse treatment.
The Youthful Offender Court's goal is to provide offenders with the necessary treatment, resources, and tools to address criminogenic needs as well as key emerging adult developmental issues during supervision. The Youthful Offender program aims to promote rehabilitation, reduce recidivism, and reduce the likelihood of revocation and imprisonment of emerging adult offenders by addressing key emerging adult developmental issues during supervision.
The program length will require 6 to 18 months of participation based on the level and intensity of needs and treatment services identified in the Texas Risk Assessment System (TRAS), Risk Need Responsivity tool, and the clinical assessment. The participants will enter the program via a court order issued by the Judiciary in Hidalgo County after eligibility requirements are met. The program is divided into four phases. Participants assessed as needing substance abuse treatment will begin the Youthful Offender program in Phase I. Participants scoring moderate or high in domains requiring cognitive-behavioral interventions will start the Youthful Offender Program in Phase II.
In Phase I, participants enroll and participate in an Intensive Substance Abuse Outpatient Treatment. Participants are required to submit to random urinalysis and drug testing. Participants will appear before the Youthful Offender Court twice per month and weekly contact with the probation officer. The Youthful Offender officer communicates monthly with a treatment provider and documents all contacts made via face to face, by telephone, email, or other written correspondence while participants are receiving services.
In Phase II (Behavioral Adjustment), participants focus on cognitive restructuring and critical social skills, which support the cognitive restructuring process via Decision points curriculum and use of cognitive journals. Participants continue to appear before the Judge a minimum of twice per month upon entering this phase. The frequency of court appearances may decrease as the participant progresses. Contact with probation officer continues twice per month during this phase, and home visits are conducted as deemed necessary.
In Phase III, participants focus on developing positive peer and employment relations within their network to begin establishing a support system to have in place upon completion of the Youthful Offender Court Program. They continue to submit to random urinalysis and drug testing and attend Youthful Offender Court a minimum of once per month. They also have monthly contact with the probation officer.
In Phase IV (Transitional Phase), participants prepare to transition from the program and reintegration into the community. Program participants submit a written plan to the Judge before being released from the program. Participants may continue with cognitive journals if needed and continue to submit to random drug and alcohol testing. Completion of phase IV marks the end of the program, and the Judge considers the possibility of early termination if applicable and meets criteria.
The Hidalgo County Community Supervision Department supports the use of specialty courts in Texas. It has also been successful in implementing evidence-based supervision strategies, including being a research partner during the past eight years with ACE! (Advancing Correctional Excellence) Using Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR; BJA Grant 2009-DG-BX-K026) and SOARING2 (Skills for Offender Assessment and Responsivity in New Goals, 2010-DG-BX-K077). Hidalgo County CSCD uses the Texas Risk Assessment System tool (TRAS), undergoes ongoing training and coaching of staff in Core Correctional Practices through SOARING2 eLearning modules, and uses the RNR Simulation Tool for matching client needs to services. Additionally, the agency assesses the fidelity of evidence-based practice supervision implementation through program and gap assessments using the RNR Simulation Tool. It uses the SOARING2 observation forms to observe and measure the effective use of skills of their probation officers.
In 2017, the Hidalgo County CSCD and George Mason University developed the Hidalgo County Emerging Adult Strategy. The Hidalgo County Emerging Adult Strategy was designed to lower the high revocation rate of 18-25-year-old probationers in Hidalgo County. This strategy was developed after it was discovered that in the fiscal year 2016, 18-25-year-old probationers made up 47% of all revocation cases in Hidalgo County. The program began to admit eligible participants into the program in April of 2017, and by the end of the fiscal year 2017, 44% of 18-25-year-old probationers were revoked. By the end of the fiscal year 2018, only 40% of 18-25-year-old probationers had been revoked.
Additionally, by the end of FY2019, we again noticed another drop in the revocation rate of 18-25-year-old probationers in Hidalgo County. The revocation of 18-25-year-old probationers in FY2019 was 36%. When compared to the baseline year of FY2016, the revocation rate for this age group has dropped from 47% in FY2016 to 36% in FY2019.
In summary, Hidalgo County noticed a significant reduction in the number of 18-25-year-old probationers revoked in Hidalgo County within the three years of operation. We contend that the Youthful Offender Specialty Court has demonstrated success in accomplishing its goals, but also has allowed the Hidalgo County CSCD an opportunity to expand access and services to an increased number of 18-25-year-old probationers in Hidalgo County. The Youthful Offender Program was mentioned in a Policy Perspective article published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation in December 2019.
For questions about this program please contact Faustino Lopez.