In this July 8, 2010 file photo, teenagers head toward the gym at Caddo Juvenile Detention Center in Shreveport, La. Fear and frustration is raging as fast as the coronavirus in some juvenile detention centers, with riots and escapes reported in hotspot facilities such as New York and Louisiana. (Val Horvath/The Shreveport Times via AP, File)

Harris County will invest $4 million in what’s called a youth justice community reinvestment fund support community programs, with the goal of preventing the incarceration of young people.

More than 60 community members, elected officials and nonprofits signed a letter of support for the initiative, and the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department has endorsed it as well. In fact, half of the $4 million investment comes from money previously earmarked for juvenile probation.

The grants are expected to start being distributed in the fall.

More than 1,500 young people, mostly Black and Hispanic teenagers, were referred to Harris County’s juvenile probation department last year.

The youth justice fund is the first of its kind in Texas, but it follows similar initiatives in California and Colorado to create alternatives to youth incarceration that disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic young people.

Houston Public Media spoke to Assata Nicole Richards, who leads the Redefining Youth Justice Coalition, to learn more.

How does this fund into reimagine youth justice? Can you paint me a picture?

Our coalition has three goals. The first goal is to build this local solution for youth justice transformation, to eliminate the need for detention and that centers the leadership of impacted youth and parents, right? A coalition that centers and understands that the work of redefining youth justice really requires us to center the experiences of those who’ve been impacted by the system. And the second goal is to expand the community-based continuum of services available to the impacted youth and families to reduce youth violence and safely keep young people out of custody, right? And then the third goal has been to connect local families, youth and community stakeholders to national best practices and partners to expand and support transformation efforts.

How has the pandemic changed this work? Has it given more urgency to what you’re trying to do here?

I think it has really spurred us because young people were released from detention unprecedentedly because of COVID-19. And in doing so, we were all committed to keeping young people safe. And so those needs, those priorites really began to bubble to the surface, because the pandemic forced us to begin to de- and un-incarcerate and eliminate detention for young people.

When the fund starts distributing grants, what is that going to look like?

We want those services and programs to really be based on a needs assessment, right? For us to understand: what do families and young people need? So again, it is important that the fund is responding to the needs of impacted youth and impacted family members. One, we want the fund to really speak to those needs and that those needs are being articulated. And then we want the fund to be placed in communities where young people are entering into the system.

What have you been hearing from communities and families? What are some of their needs?

Young people are in need of financial resources, them and their families, right? So economic opportunities, where young people want to be in the labor market. They want to and need to be earning dollars to provide for themselves and contribute to their household. So do their families. So the economic needs are really, really important. Economic needs, housing needs.

But young people are also saying that they want artistic expression. They need opportunities to be involved in activities that really speak to their creative and artistic aspirations. They want access to green spaces and open spaces. This may sound maybe surprising to some people, but the young people that have been impacted, the Black and brown and specifically the African American youth that have been impacted by this system, they want what other young people want. They want opportunities.