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Michael Griffiths: The TT Interview

The incoming director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department on how his experience has prepared him for his new role and how he'll solve the problems that have long plagued the state's juvenile system.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
Michael Griffiths, the executive director of the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice

Michael Griffiths never really retired after 15 years as head of juvenile services for the Dallas County Juvenile Department. He taught online courses at his alma mater, Sam Houston State University, and consulted on juvenile issues, and he even handed out programs at Texas Rangers games.

On Monday, Griffiths will become the new executive director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. The 13-member board voted 7-6 to hire him to replace Jay Kimbrough, who has temporarily led the department since the retirement of Cherie Townsend in May.

The lack of a permanent director is a small part of larger issues that have plagued the agency since it replaced the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission last year. In 2007, reports of sexual and physical abuse at commission facilities led to an overhauling of the system, and the number of youths locked up dropped from 4,000 to roughly 1,100.

The juvenile system still faced challenges as reports of youth-on-youth assaults, especially at the Giddings facility, continued to rise, sparking outrage among lawmakers and Townsend’s departure.

Kimbrough oversaw a set of a reforms, including the Phoenix Program, which administers intensive counseling to serious offenders. But an escape attempt in July highlighted continuing problems for the new agency, and Kimbrough sent inspectors out to make unannounced visits to facilities.

Although the director position technically demanded no corrections experience, the TJJD board picked Griffiths over Maj. Gen. Keith Thurgood, a former PepsiCo and Sam's Club executive, in a 7-6 vote.

Griffiths has spent his entire career in corrections, and most of it in the juvenile field. He grew up in Dallas and got a job in the 1970s on the floor of a juvenile detention center in Tarrant County. He then worked as a probation officer, a program manager, the supervisor of a community program and as a chief juvenile probation officer before he was tapped for the Dallas job. In an interview with The Texas Tribune in Cedar Hill, he said the challenges he faced in Dallas have prepared him for the fraught situation he is about to enter.

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

TT: What was it like when you first started as director in Dallas?

Griffiths: It was real turbulent times for the agency, and a lot of it had to be the lack of continuity at the top. There was chaos in the probation system. The juvenile judges and prosecutors and defense bar really didn’t trust the agency at the time. I came aboard and we just started creating a foundation of good prudent personnel rules and regulations. I did a reorganization of the agency immediately, which I plan to do with the TJJD.

I may be the catalyst, but I’m not naïve; it’s the team you put around you. Establishing a really strong team is job No. 1 for me. From there, you just build your credibility. You walk your talk. I’m a very hands-on administrator. That agency [in Dallas] had 1,000 employees. This agency has 2,200. We went through drastic budget cuts and maintained our services through it. We’re in the same mindset with the state, doing more with less.

TT: Over the last year it seemed like there was a gap between what we were hearing about violence at Giddings and the escape attempt in Waco and TJJD administrators saying that there wasn’t much going on. Why do you think there was this divide?

Griffiths: I don’t know the exact answer. I know that I’ve gone to the facilities since January and met some talented and wonderful people. I’m not casting blame on the folks in those facilities. I think if you always look at a problem the same way, you’ll never look at a solution. I think having fresh eyes come in is important, a different perspective on how things can happen. You can’t escape the report that was done by office of the independent ombudsman [Debbie Unruh]. She hit the nail on the head. If there was any debate between the media and administrators, Debbie was right on target. That gave me credence that there are problems.

The Phoenix Program, that type of program is necessary right now, with this level of discord that was going on. Ideally, we work our way out of using a program like that. We have to make sure that each of the facilities is safe and secure.

TT: There’s also been talk about closing some of the rural facilities to bring kids back into their home counties.

Griffiths: I support the movement. It’ll be a challenge to do it, but the mandate is clear from policymakers that closer is better. We have to fight the "not in my backyard" syndrome that a lot of communities have about this level of youth near their home, but I think its possible. To develop small unique programs near Houston, Dallas, San Antonio will also take capital.

The other layer is training. We have to make sure that employees on the front line are getting the training they need to do their job. We can look at programs, and those can be altered, but basically we need to make sure that every employee feels comfortable to do their job.

TT: What are some of your other priorities?

Griffiths: You’ve got to maintain the safety and security of the facilities. You can’t do treatment unless there is that foundation of safety and security. Mr. Kimbrough has done a wonderful job. He’s created security teams in the facilities. Their main focus is, are things under control, separate and aside from the JCOs [juvenile correctional officers] on the floor.

I hate to use the phrase "get tough," but we have to maintain that safety. I’ll be very honest. I’ve been with institutional programs most of my career, and I’ve never seen the level of chaos that was prevalent before Mr. Kimbrough. It’s just unheard of to have those things going on. We need cameras, security, those things: It is correctional. The youth are there for a reason.

If we want to continue to see that kids are developing, we need to find dollars to provide them behavioral health services, making sure on the other end that youth are ready to come home. We need to establish benchmarks that aren’t there now. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. We’re not measuring the right things now. Let’s get a common definition of recidivism. Let’s get a common definition of positive outcomes. We need to look at it properly over several years. That gives us a baseline. That way we’ll know what works and what doesn’t work.

TT:What was it like when you were on the frontline?

Griffiths: It was tough. This was in 1976, and you had no standards then. It was pretty common that you’d have an area of 24 youth. Not 1 to 12 or 1 to 8. The main recreational activity at the time was pool, so they had pool sticks and pool balls.

It all gets down to the relationship the officer has with the people he or she are in charge of.

TT: How did you go about developing that good relationship?

Griffiths: The same way you do with employees; you’re fair, you’re consistent, you give immediate feedback. Everyone needs structure. The young people in our programs need structure. They relish it. I’ve really seen that if they’re busy and they’re doing constructive things, then misbehavior goes down. A child has to be life-ready when they leave facilities.

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