Sunsetting TYC: Will It Stick?

The Sunset Commission's close vote makes TYC's Lege fate hard to predict

Sunset Advisory Commission Chair Carl Isett
Sunset Advisory Commission Chair Carl Isett

Close the Texas Youth Commission and merge it with the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission to form a new juvenile justice and rehabilitation agency by Sept. 1, 2010: That's the controversial recommendation handed down by the Legislature's Sunset Advisory Commission at its last meeting of the current review cycle. Rather than wait longer for reforms introduced last session under Senate Bill 103 to take hold, Sunset chair Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, told his fellow commissioners, "We need to move while the clay is still wet."

The 12-member commission met on Jan. 14 with an empty seat after Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst failed to appoint a replacement for former Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth. Originally scheduled for the morning, the meeting was delayed while the Senate launched into a bitter rules fight. (Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, told his fellow commissioners, "As Gandalf's famous quote to the Fellowship of the Ring in Rivendell [goes], 'We were detained.'") But when quorum was reached well after 7pm, Isett reminded the commission that the TYC decision may be the biggest one they make in this review cycle.

The commission adopted a lightly modified version of Sunset staff recommendations (see "An End to TYC's Problems … and to TYC?" Nov. 21, 2008). The bulk of the proposals – including shutting down the big rural sites at the center of 2007's abuse scandals in favor of smaller, better-equipped, and better-staffed facilities near urban centers – was adopted unanimously. But the most contentious proposal – that TYC and TJPC be integrated into one new agency, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department – only passed by a 6-5 majority.

No one was eager to jump to TYC's defense and claim that everything had been fixed since last session's revelations of systematic abuses. However, SB 103 author and commission member Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hino­josa, D-Mission, voted against abolition and again called for more time to let the reforms take hold. Rep. Ruth Jones McClen­don, D-San Antonio, said she was not wholly opposed to considering abolition but called the proposal "premature" and feared it would take "a hatchet" to provisions for the more than 100,000 children referred to TJPC annually, when the real target for reforms was the 2,400 children in TYC.

But Isett countered that this was about looking beyond fixing TYC and establishing a new agency based on nationally recognized best practices. He argued that the false division between the two agencies ignored their common mission of child rehabilitation and that the only real solution was "a single agency with a single board under a single executive." While he praised both TYC Execu­tive Commissioner Cherie Townsend and TJPC Executive Director Vicki Spriggs, he held that good staff is no replacement for good systems and that only a complete structural rebuild could put the focus where it needed to be – on the kids. "We've done law and order really well, but what we haven't necessarily done well is rehabilitate and reinte­grate," he said.

Although the proposal passed, the narrow margin may cause trouble for its progress through the Legislature. Of the six ayes, two came from the appointed public members (Ike Sugg and Charles McMahen), leaving the vote among legislators at two reps and two senators in favor vs. three reps and two senators against. Left hanging is the question of which way former Commissioner Brimer would have voted on the night: A 6-6 tie would have effectively scuppered the proposal, while a 7-5 majority would have made its passage easier.

Isett stressed that only a combined agency can ensure continuity of care and case management; he and other pro-abolition advocates hope that cost savings will win over fiscal conservatives and that continued funding commitments (for what vice chair Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, called a "probation first" policy) will reduce opposition from county commissioners.

The plan will require support from stakeholder groups such as Texans Care for Child­ren. While the proposed new board structure and new inspection rules will give such groups an expanded presence, there's still resistance from such groups to moving too fast. TCC Public Policy Director Jodie Smith noted that "consolidation does not equal coordination" and suggested bringing TYC up for Sunset review again in 2013 (avoiding the massive review of Health Services in 2011).

Now the contentious proposal goes to the full Legislature. Both TYC and TJPC publicly opposed the merger when it was originally raised by commission staff in November, but now they must leave the issue to legislators. Jim Hurley, TYC's director of public affairs, explained: "We have to focus on the job in front of us. ... The rest of it, it'll go through the process, and we'll do what the Legislature asks us to do."

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81st Legislature, Texas Youth Commission, Sunset Advisory Commission, Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, Carl Isett, Texans Care for Children

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