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Achieving Closure

Lawmakers, bureaucrats and criminal justice advocates all agree that the state’s trouble-ridden Texas Youth Commission ought to close down two of its correctional facilities. Like other state agencies, TYC has been asked to cut its budget for the next biennium by 10 percent, or $40 million. But no one at TYC is saying which lockups should get shuttered. “They don’t want to bite that bullet and show leadership,” says state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

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Lawmakers, bureaucrats and criminal justice advocates all agree that the state’s trouble-ridden Texas Youth Commission ought to close down at least two of its correctional facilities. But no one, it seems, wants to take on the politically charged task of deciding which juvenile lockups will be the next to get shuttered.

More than three years after physical and sexual abuse scandals rocked the TYC and lawmakers passed sweeping overhaul legislation — in the process, closing five facilities — reports of mistreatment and poor conditions continue. Advocates say even deeper change is needed. Meanwhile, legislators are preparing to grapple with a massive budget shortfall in 2011, and state agencies, including TYC, have been asked to cut their budgets by 10 percent for the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years.

For TYC, that means trimming nearly $40 million. “We simply can’t get there without closing some facilities,” explains agency spokesman Jim Hurley. But TYC officials aren’t saying which ones they recommend closing, and that irks one of the Capitol's power players.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, says TYC, not lawmakers, should decide which of the facilities should be closed. “They don’t want to bite that bullet and show leadership,” Whitmire says. “That’s the job of the agency and their board.” TYC staff who work with young inmates every day should know best which facilities provide critical services and which ones should be on the chopping block, he says.

In 2007, when Dallas Morning News and Texas Observer investigations revealed that TYC staff had sexually and physically abused inmates, the agency operated 15 facilities statewide, and the juvenile offender population was significantly larger — at one point swelling to more than 5,000. But over the last two legislative sessions, lawmakers approved policies that kept more young offenders in their home communities, limited TYC sentences to felony offenders and closed five facilities. Today, there are about 1,500 youths in the 10 remaining lockups.

Given those changes, Whitmire believes it is reasonable to consider closing even more than two facilities — even without the state's financial woes. "Why does it take a budget crisis to get TYC management to do what’s right and consolidate facilities and for certain to get youths the services they so badly need?” he asks.

In the budget proposal that TYC submitted in August, agency staff explained that the only realistic option to achieve the required 10-percent reduction was to eliminate one or two facilities. “Downsizing by two more facilities may result in increased populations at remaining facilities, with potential adverse impacts on staff and youth safety as well as on smaller therapeutic treatment and educational environments,” they wrote. They estimated that each facility closed would eliminate about 230 employees and save nearly $20 million. But they didn’t suggest which of the 10 facilities ought to be considered for closure. “Our board could do that if we need to, but at this point it’s best to lay out our options and work with the Legislature,” Hurley says.

To guide lawmakers, TYC staff provided a spreadsheet listing a variety of factors about each of the facilities, including how difficult it is to recruit staff to work there, how much it costs to keep youths there, how many juveniles are incarcerated there and what the state would save by closing it. Closing down the Ron Jackson I facility in Brownwood would save the most money: $25.2 million. That facility also has more than 200 empty beds, the most vacancies among the units. The Al Price unit in Beaumont, one of the most notoriously troubled, has the most difficulty in recruiting staff but is more than two-thirds full; the state would only save about $18 million if it were closed.

This map shows the 10 TYC facilities, the number of juveniles in each and the amount the state could save by closing the unit. The map shows eight locations because some of the facilities are in the same place.

Whoever ultimately makes the closure decisions, criminal justice advocates say the bottom line cannot be the only factor under consideration. “We want responsible downsizing,” says Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. If lawmakers are going to reduce capacity at TYC, she says, they must be sure to adequately fund local probation and community supervision programs that keep juvenile offenders from winding up in detention facilities. “The Legislature can’t have it both ways,” Yañez-Correa says.

Marc Levin, director for the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, says he agrees with TYC staff that brick-and-mortar structures — not rehabilitation programs, health services and education — should top the list of items to cut. “Given the budget situation, it’s the best option,” he says. Levin suspects that TYC officials are leaving the decisions to lawmakers to shield themselves from blowback in communities that will lose hundreds of jobs, but he says fear of political fallout shouldn't be the driver.  

Top among the factors that ought to be considered, says Michele Deitch, a jail conditions expert and professor at the University of Texas' LBJ School of Public Affairs, is the culture of the facilities in question — whether they tolerate abuse and neglect, and whether they emphasize helping youths improve their lives. Institutions that have difficulty hiring and retaining staff, especially staff who provide specialty services like mental health care, will have trouble providing juveniles the rehabilitative resources they need, she says. “If they can’t staff the facility, why are they keeping it open?” she asks. “It’s just a warehouse.”

Other relevant factors, Deitch argues, include the number of lawsuits that have resulted from allegations of abuse and whether the facility is under federal investigation. The Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, for example, has been under U.S. Department of Justice investigation for alleged abuse. Facility location also should be weighed, she says, as it’s harder to find, hire and retain specialists in rural areas. And since most of the youths in TYC come from urban areas, it makes sense to keep them closer to the homes and support systems they will return to when they are released.

The final decision, Dietch says, can’t be made based simply on the biggest immediate savings — but closing down more facilities could make TYC better and save more money in the end. “Having fewer facilities would allow TYC to concentrate its efforts in fewer places,” she says, “and make it easier for them do what they do well.” 

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Courts Criminal justice State government Budget John Whitmire State agencies Texas Legislature