Cherie Townsend, the executive director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, announced Tuesday that she will retire at the end of June after nearly four years leading the state's institutions for youth offenders.
In an email sent Tuesday morning to agency staff, Townsend wrote that in the last couple of months, as the agency has struggled to deal with reports of increasing violence and safety concerns at the state's youth lockups, her "values and principles related to best practices in juvenile justice" have detracted from "the mission and work of the agency."
Agency spokesman Jim Hurley had no immediate comment on the announcement.
Townsend came to the agency in August 2008 after lawmakers overhauled what was then the Texas Youth Commission following reports of horrible sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by staff. Under her leadership, the number of youths in secure facilities has dropped from more than 4,000 to fewer than 1,200 now, allowing the state to close several of the large institutions in far-flung rural areas.
"As I look back, I am astounded by the accomplishments over the years by people working collaboratively to make certain that communities were safer and that youth had opportunities for change and success in their lives," Townsend wrote in her email. "That was especially true here in Texas."
When lawmakers last year decided to merge the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, Townsend was chosen to lead the new agency. In recent months, though, news stories and reports from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department's independent ombudsman have revealed a dramatic increase in youth-on-youth violence and attacks on staff as well as troubling reports of youth ringleaders essentially controlling the state's largest juvenile detention facilities.
Lawmakers have called the situation a crisis and have been critical of the agency's response to it. Earlier this month, Townsend announced that Jay Kimbrough had been hired to help bring security back to the facilities. Kimbrough served as conservator of the Texas Youth Commission in 2007 as the agency sought to recover and reform after the previous abuse scandal. He is acting as special assistant for safety and security at TJJD.
State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, the chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said Townsend phoned him this morning to inform him of her retirement.
"She indicated that she’d become sort of the center of the controversy out there, and as such she felt it probably was the right time to say, 'I've had good run at agency,'" Madden said.
Madden said he was unaware of any pressure from legislators to get Townsend to retire. But he said that while some improvements have been made since 2007, it is clear that the full extent of reforms lawmakers hoped to see at the agency have not been realized.
"I think we expected more progress in many areas than we probably got," Madden said. "This is one of those times where it didn’t go probably as well as either she or we would have liked."
Madden said Kimbrough would likely be in charge of ensuring security at the agency's facilities in Townsend's absence. And he said he hoped her departure would allow the agency to continue making progress to improve the safety of youths in state custody.
"I would hope the board moves rather rapidly to find a replacement," Madden said.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he hoped Townsend's departure would allow the agency to adopt a philosophy that holds the youths more accountable. As recent as this weekend, he said he received credible reports that gang leaders at the Evins Unit in Edinburg met to discuss how they would divide up leadership at the various youth facilities. And at the Giddings facility east of Austin, he said, there were reports this weekend of another youth-led disturbance.
Under Townsend's leadership, he said, youths who commit crimes at the facilities do not face real consequences for their behavior. They should be charged with crimes and sent before a judge who can certify the youths as adults, if warranted, and then place the youths in an adult facility.
"I endorse a zero-tolerance policy for those troublemakers," Whitmire said. "I just run out of words to describe my frustration at having violent gang leaders allowed to continue disrupt the entire campus."
Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the news of Townsend's retirement came as a surprise. She said she hopes the change of leadership doesn't add to the existing turmoil for the incarcerated youth and that the focus remains on sending young people out of state lockups in better condition than when they arrived.
Yañez-Correa and other juvenile justice reform advocates, however, oppose efforts to send more youths to adult facilities, where they say education and rehabilitation for young offenders is inferior. The youths, she said, shouldn't be punished for the failed efforts of adults to reform the agency.
"I'm still very optimistic that that vision will happen," she said. "And it's going to take all of us to make it to that point."