Youth Advocates Worry Cuts Will Put More in Prison

Jason and his buddies spent half the year in 2005 planning their big robbery. But the heist — they stole $69,000 worth of items from a family in Mesquite — didn’t exactly go according to plan. The teenager from North Texas was convicted of aggravated robbery and spent the next three years behind bars.

Jason, who requested he be identified only by his first name because his juvenile criminal record is not public, said his days in Texas Youth Commission facilities were fraught with riots and fights. But the experience wasn’t all bad. Now, he could be considered a TYC success story. Jason is on parole, and because of help he got through TYC, he earned a GED and a high enough ACT score to get into the University of Texas at Dallas.

But for the hundreds of youths who remain under TYC care, which is responsible for children age 10 to 17 who are convicted of felonies, those same opportunities could disappear. The House and Senate budgets propose a $95.6 million cut in total revenue from the TYC budget in 2012 and 2013 — about a 21 percent cut from the previous budget — and lawmakers are eying reductions in parole services, which could lead to fewer staffers and fewer district parole offices.

Currently, TYC is responsible for more than 2,800 youths. TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said about 40 percent of those, or 1,120 youths, are on parole. State law requires the commission to assign a parole officer to supervise each child who leaves TYC for at least six months after their release. It’s a tenuous time for youths, who are often tempted to return to the friends and substances that landed them in TYC, experts say. Between September 2009 and August 2010, more than half of youths on parole were arrested for committing a crime — typically absconding on parole, burglary and failure to report to the parole officer — within their first year of release, Hurley said. 

Jason said he understands the challenges his peers face when they leave TYC. The youth jails, he said, aren’t always conducive to rehabilitation. “This one time, everybody on campus kicked down the fire escape doors and threw a riot. You had 200 kids fighting in the middle of a field,” he said. “There was just a lot of open space and nothing else to do.”

And Jason said many of the youths he met came from homes and communities where drugs and violence are ways of life. “One of my bunk mates, his father left him when he was a kid. His mom was a coke addict. His sister was a prostitute, and in order to survive in his neighborhood, he had to gang bang," he said. "How do you break that cycle?”

Some youths can’t seem to break free, and they wind up in the adult prison system. TYC sent 180 youths to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in fiscal year 2010.

James Smith, TYC's director of youth services, said youths getting out of prison usually face the same problems that got them into trouble in the first place. To help them make good choices, Smith said, TYC staff focus on helping the youths learn to control and direct their own behavior. “We have a model based on the child being successful than having one focused on complying,” Smith said.

TYC officials are monitoring state budget recommendations, but they said it is too soon to know exactly where cuts will be made. Some youth advocates, though, worry that cuts to parole programs will mean more youths spending more time behind bars and more of them committing crimes as adults.

Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said lawmakers should consider cuts holistically. Spending dollars on rehabilitative programming, community supervision and stronger re-entry programs will be more effective at limiting recidivism than spending money on housing youths in state lockups, she said. 

Yañez-Correa said there are four common pitfalls for TYC parolees: home environment, lack of education, lack of public services and returning to public school. “The school districts don’t want them,” she said. “And so much of children’s lives depend on whether or not they are going to get a good education.”

State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, said he is hopeful that a planned consolidation of TYC and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission could create enough savings to reduce the need to cut parole services. "It's about breaking the cycle of people coming in and out of prison," Madden said. "That's what parole does: reduce demand for prison beds and divert people from a life of crime."

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