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TribBlog: We Are Family

In the shadow of a projected $21 billion budget shortfall, lawmakers told juvenile justice agencies that they must start budgeting like a cash-strapped family.

Doorway at a juvenile detention facility.

The Texas Juvenile Probation Commission and the Texas Youth Commission should be more like Texas families when it comes to their budgets, lawmakers said Wednesday.

In the shadow of a projected budget shortfall of up to $21 billion, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and the House Committee on Corrections heard testimony on the state’s diversion pilot programs for juvenile offenders and their cost-effectiveness. State officials have asked agencies to tighten their belts and approach their budgets as a family would.

The diversion program places nonviolent juvenile offenders under community supervision in lieu of incarceration in the TYC. If juveniles complete the program successfully, they can avoid jail time and a criminal record. TYC has been under scrutiny since 2007 following revelations of widespread abuse. Some advocacy groups have even called for abolishing TYC because they say its facilities are persistently unsafe and unhealthy, even after legislative reforms.

TJPC Executive Director Vicki Spriggs and the chief juvenile probation officers from Bexar, Guadalupe and Brown counties said diversion programs have reduced juvenile referrals to TYC, even as the judicial system faces more and more cases of juveniles with marijuana, meth, heroin and prescription drug problems.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, said the diversion programs are vital to saving money down the road because keeping youths out of jail can save them and the state the cost of "a lifetime of incarceration." But, he said, the commissions must also deal with the realities of the current budget situation. He compared the struggle of the agencies to his own experiences as a child eating cornbread and potato soup or beans three nights a week to get by.

Though Spriggs agreed with the family analogy, she said the state should provide certainty, especially because the federal government is pulling back on grants.

"It’s hard to build a house on a very shaky foundation," Spriggs said. "If you don’t know the funding is going to be there, it would be hard to make any significant planning."

Spriggs suggested legislators could save money by reducing the complicated restrictions and rules attached to funding grants. Those burdens, she said, take away money that could be used to help juveniles.

James Williams, chief juvenile probation officer in Brown County, said that while he understands budget cuts are necessary for all state agencies, the budding success of the Texas juvenile system is fragile.

"We don‘t want to reverse the progress we‘ve made," Williams said. "We’re on the verge of doing great things.

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