There's not a lot of difference between the overall thrust of these recommendations and what experts told the Legislature this spring amounted to "best practices" from Missouri, Ohio and other states. TYC employees may quaver at that thought since it might mean additional unit closures. But if the Texas Legislature can't fix the agency under its own steam I wouldn't be surprised to see the courts force them to take more draconian actions down the line, as has happened in California.
The measure, SB81, which the governor is expected to sign, is designed to ultimately shrink the troubled state juvenile prison system nearly out of existence.
Under the bill, all but the most violent youths convicted of the most serious crimes, such as murder and certain types of sexual assault, would be dealt with in their home counties. The counties generally operate an array of programs, ranging from camps where some youth offenders are incarcerated and treated, to strict after-school programs providing various forms of education, therapy and family treatment.
"We've been working on this for 20 years, some of us," said David Steinhart, executive director of the Commonweal's Juvenile Justice Program in San Francisco, who was a key player in negotiating elements of the program. "There are bugs that need to be worked out, but we've climbed the mountain. It's a major milestone."
The network of eight juvenile prisons operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice has gone from 10,000 wards, as inmates are known, a decade ago to fewer than 2,600 now. That is partly a result of declining crime rates and partly because counties have been so appalled by the conditions in the juvenile prisons and the lack of rehabilitation that some have chosen to simply keep offenders at home as much as possible.
Bill Sifferman, head of San Francisco's Juvenile Probation Department, said the city has sent just two youth offenders to the state system in three years "because of the atrocities at the state system and the lack of sufficient therapeutic programs."
The Department of Juvenile Justice has been operating under a state court consent decree since 2004, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to end years of litigation and find a solution to the system's serious problems.
While there has been some progress, reports provided to the court by outside experts and reports by the department's own inspector general still have found deep problems, such as widespread violence, deep racial tensions and shortcomings in education and rehabilitation programs. Many wards spend all but an hour of each day in their cells, reports have said.
Steinhart said the newly approved bill would cut the ward population roughly in half within three years, which means that the state system would hold only one-tenth of the number of wards it had in 1996.
See additional SF Chronicle coverage of the legislation.