TYC: Will the Lege Drain the Gulag?

State government starts long, protracted, and expensive era of oversight, litigation, and structural changes to discredited agency

Sen. Juan Chuy Hinojosa's SB 103 would restructure TYC from the bottom up, because the whole agency was broken.
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa's SB 103 would "restructure TYC from the bottom up, because the whole agency was broken." (Photo By John Anderson)

Much legislative energy in both houses this session has been devoted to reforming the battered, scandal-plagued, and discredited Texas Youth Commission. But as the relevant reform and financing bills come closer to passage, what becomes clearer is that state government is starting a long, protracted, and expensive era of oversight, litigation, and structural changes to the agency.

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said he has spearheaded the legislative push to "restructure TYC from the bottom up because the whole agency was broken. We're putting reforms in place with a lot of accountability." His omnibus TYC bill, Senate Bill 103, was passed unanimously by the Senate on April 19. But the House version, which finally worked its way through the House after a bloody second-reading debate late Monday night, has some major differences from Hinojosa's bill.

On the bill's final day in the House Corrections Committee, 32 amendments were added. More were added on the House floor: The most controversial, which would allow juveniles guilty of multiple misdemeanors to be sent to TYC, was narrowly defeated. Most of those that passed, said Hinojosa, were "good amendments that expand and clarify 103, and in some areas, they improve on it." There could be a sticking point, however. Hinojosa's bill would sweep away the TYC board, whose members refused to resign for much of the duration of the scandal. They would be replaced by an advisory board and an executive commissioner, appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate, and reconfirmed every two years. The latest House version would maintain the current board system. The difference will need to be worked out in conference; Hinojosa said it's important to remember that "we all want to end up at the same place on this."

Until then, the budget for TYC, and therefore the omnibus budget bills, cannot be completed. There is currently a $2 billion disparity between SB 1, the Senate finance bill, and HB 1, what the House believes the state needs to operate over the next two years. This gap will shrink once the House passes an estimated $471 million in pending bills, but until the language of the TYC reforms is agreed upon, that figure could change. The Senate has earmarked $50 million in extra cash for TYC, based on the Hinojosa bill.

TYC reform is nowhere near complete. Most of the changes proposed are on the administrative side – such as introducing an ombudsman to deal with inmate complaints and an inspector general to investigate criminal complaints and allowing child advocates better access. But there are huge structural changes planned. According to Hinojosa, "We have too many facilities that are isolated and not well run. We want to study those facilities, to see if we need them all or whether we should do away with them."

The agency comes under Sunset Advisory Commission review in the next session, and Hinojosa hopes to be appointed to the commission so that he can "ensure that the changes we mandate are being implemented." As part of the review, SB 103 proposes a special advisory committee that will report to Sunset. This nine-member body, which would include nationally recognized juvenile-justice experts and child advocates, will examine ways to move from the current system, of big facilities concentrated in the remotest parts of the state, to what's known as the Missouri Model. The majority of TYC inmates come from big cities, but as inmates, they are shipped out to distant rural camps. The Missouri Model regionalizes the system by opening smaller facilities closer to population centers. This gives better access to external counseling and support services and better oversight from both state agencies and the media. According to Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, this is an essential move because "the proven model is to have inmates close to home and close to community support. In El Paso, we do not send our kids to TYC because they're so far from friends and family, and kids who have some support network do better than those that don't."

If the Senate proposals hold, they will not simply change how TYC operates; they'll also pump extra money into programs intended to cut down on the number of youths that get incarcerated. Over the next two years, $12.3 million extra would go to the Juvenile Probation Commission, split between intervention projects to keep kids out of TYC and post-probation support, including specialist counseling for abused ex-inmates. The Senate has also budgeted an additional $47 million for 600 drug-treatment and rehabilitation beds statewide.

Yet there remains the bigger question, what Shapleigh has called the West Texas gulag. As he explained, "TYC camps were developed as economic development projects rather than best-practice TYC facilities." There will be pressure to pump new "development" cash into areas where TYC facilities are to be closed. Threatened counties have strong advocates like Sens. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, and Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who are pushing for these facilities either to stay open or to become adult prisons. That's already happening with John Shero State Juvenile Correctional Facility in San Saba and the Marlin Orientation & Assessment Unit, which are being transferred to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. However, the Corrections Association of Texas, which represents TDCJ employees, says the staff is already overstretched, with a 3,152 shortfall in staff members statewide and a rapid staff turnover due to low pay. And meanwhile, there's also been a disturbing federal report concerning the Lubbock State School, plus firings at the Mexia State School, both run by the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (see "On the Lege," April 6). Low staffing levels, allegations of poor staff training, and distance from state and media oversight have plagued both agencies, much as they did TYC.

There is one further potential financial time bomb for the state – litigation. Senate Concurrent Resolution 49 by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, allows inmates abused by staff to sue Texas and TYC. Alison Brock, staffer for Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, and a former juvenile probation officer, said lawsuits are inevitable and that "we're seeing these kids that went through TYC and juvenile probation begin to bond together and say, 'You know what? What they allowed to happen to us, that wasn't right.'" There are no plans in the Lege for a litigation fund: Instead, legislators will wait for any cases to end and then appropriate any damages as part of the budget in the following session. With the first class-action suit already filed in Austin (see "Arbitrary Justice at TYC," April 13), Texans could be paying the cost of the West Texas gulag for years to come.

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TYC, Texas Youth Commission, Juan Hinojosa, SB 103, HB 2807, Senate finance bill, Missouri Model, Eliot Shapleigh, Juvenile Probation Commission, Kip Averitt, Troy Fraser, Texas Department of Criminal, SCR 49, Rodney Ellis, Sylvester Turner

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