An End to TYC's Problems ... and to TYC?

The Sunset Advisory Commission recommends drastic action to remedy the problems plaguing the Texas Youth Commission: dissolve the agency

Texas Youth Commission graduates Arimis Joliff (l) and Daniel Bryant spoke last week at the Capitol
Texas Youth Commission graduates Arimis Joliff (l) and Daniel Bryant spoke last week at the Capitol (Photo by Sandy Carson)

Daniel Bryant strikes a quiet-spoken and rather bookish figure. A nuclear medical technician, he's thinking about attending law school. Looking at him, you wouldn't expect that 12 years ago he was sentenced to the old San Saba State School, run by the state's juvenile prison system, the Texas Youth Commission.

On Nov. 12, Bryant joined other TYC graduates in the Capitol Extension to discuss his experiences. Hosted by House Corrections Committee budget officer Rep. Jim McRey­nolds, D-Lufkin, and advocacy group Texans Care for Children, the panel put a human face on current and former child offenders. It also preceded the release of the Sunset Advisory Commission's report on how to continue reforming TYC and child offender programs in general after the sexual- and physical-abuse scandal that ripped the agency apart last year. The report may be the biggest bombshell since the Legislature passed Senate Bill 103 – a bill that, as its author Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, noted, was only the beginning of a long process.

Sunset staff issued a joint report for TYC, the new Office of the Independent Ombuds­man, and the Texas Juvenile Pro­ba­tion Commission. The reason, they wrote, was that "historically, TYC and TJPC have operated in silos." Condemning them for failure to improve communication and cooperation, even after repeated legislative interventions, staff made a radical proposal: Dissolve both TYC and TJPC, and replace them with one single agency, the Texas Juvenile Jus­tice Department.

The plan already has one powerful supporter – Criminal Justice Committee chair Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, praised the staff's bold vision and called it "a very credible report" that centered on the children. Unifying the agencies is essential, he said, because "it needs to be a seamless system from courthouse to probation to TYC to parole and back to the community."

The report emphasizes keeping young offenders in or near their hometowns and using community resources as much as possible: Known as the Missouri model, it reduces recidivism, advocates argue, and gives better access to qualified counseling services – essential, considering how many young offenders come from abusive backgrounds. The report echoed what Bryant and other panelists said hours before the report's release: that the lack of joined-up services, family counseling, and integrated case management helped put many children in TYC and failed to get them ready for outside life. Panelist Arimis Joliff, who, post-TYC, is working toward becoming a vocational nurse, argued that the most urgent reform is simple: "Just someone to talk to," he said, would help many inmates. Meanwhile, Bryant argued for increasing the age limit for being in TYC to 21. "People don't realize that your maturation is stunted," he said.

If adopted by the Legislature next session, the Sunset staff recommendations would shrink TYC dramatically. Since its inmate population fell from 5,000 to 2,000 in the last year, some layoffs are inevitable. The agency, which has already closed several facilities and imposed an administrative hiring freeze, proposes cutting 172 jobs by 2011. The report recommends closing three more facilities (Victory Field, West Texas, and Ron Jack­son II) and integrating TYC's and TJPC's Austin headquarters. The estimated $620 million in savings could entice support from fiscal conservatives, but since the TYC caucus of the Texas State Employees Union voted to oppose any closures or staff reductions, they may balk at losing 587 full-time employee positions between the two agencies.

TYC Executive Director Cherie Townsend and TJPC Executive Commissioner Vicki Spriggs rejected the report, arguing that interagency collaboration is better than ever. While Texans Care for Children Executive Director Eileen Garcia-Matthews praised the report's support for regionalization and providing "a continuum of services," she warned against dissolving TYC, adding, "Such consolidation may further delay existing reform efforts." Similarly, Scott Medlock, trial attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, urged caution. TCRP recently settled a major lawsuit on behalf of four abused former inmates, in which TYC committed to further reforms of its secure facilities. "TYC is moving in the right direction," he said.

"I don't know what they're so proud of," said Whitmire, noting that only last month TYC canceled a contract with Youth Ser­vices International after giving them $1.2 million to run the completely empty Eagle Lake facility. Existing reforms (such as Rep. Valin­da Bol­ton's House Bill 3309, providing extra counseling services) have still not been fully implemented. Medlock agrees that poor communication between TYC, TJPC, and state mental-health agencies leads to children with diagnosed problems being shipped between agencies with no notification.

Of all who've weighed in, Bryant had the simplest message for reformers of the system. Remember who this is really about, he said, "These are kids."

Sunset Advisory Commission Staff Report Recommendations

1) Abolish TYC and TJPC, replacing them with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

2) Formalize communication between TJJD and the Office of the Independent Ombudsman.

3) Give TJJD oversight of public and private nonsecure correctional facilities.

4) Implement higher certification standards for probation and detention officers, and move disciplinary proceedings to the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

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Texas Youth Commission, Daniel Bryant, Sunset Advisory Commission, Texas Juvenile Justice Department, John Whitmire, Texas Juvenile Probation Commission

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