Lawmakers dissatisfied with TYC administration
In Mike Ward's article this morning in the Austin Statesman ("New questions about misdemeanants in TYC," Aug. 29), he wrote that "In recent weeks, a growing number of lawmakers have complained that Youth Commission officials brought in to make changes are dodging their questions or providing incomplete information." That tells me Ed Owens and Dimitria Pope may be in for a rocky hearing this morning.
Corsicana youth experiences convulsions after pepper spray
Ward also revealed an incident at Corsicana involving the new pepper spray policy that produced serious unintended consequences:
A pre-existing condition? You pepper spray someone, they go into convulsions, and you say it was caused by a pre-existing condition? Given the circumstances, don't you think it likely the pepper spray was at least a trigger for the ailment to surface at that particular moment? And what do folks think, is it appropriate to pepper spray a 17-year old who won't spit something out of their mouth?
On Tuesday, new questions surfaced after Youth Commission officials confirmed that a 17-year-old youth was hospitalized for a time last week after being sprayed at the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center, which houses youths with mental illnesses and serious emotional disturbances.
Initial agency reports indicated that the youth was sprayed after repeatedly refusing to spit pieces of caulk out of his mouth. He was rushed to a hospital after experiencing convulsions, two officials said.
Citing medical and juvenile privacy laws, Hurley said he could not discuss details, but he denied reports that the youth remained in intensive care Tuesday.
"It might have been some kind of neurological condition, a pre-existing condition," he said. "He's being looked at now."
I'd expect the joint committee to explore this incident and pepper spray policies more generally in some detail, this morning, or at least I hope they do.
Misdemeanant youth still incarcerated
Ward stuffed a lot of goodies into his day-of-the-hearing coverage. After receiving criticisms for attempting to parole older youth who'd committed serious offenses, TYC today took a broadside from Mike Ward about the number of misdemeanor inmates still incarcerated:
In mid-June, 503 youths were being held for misdemeanor crimes, including five who were supposed to have been released in 2005, according to internal commission reports. By June 29, amid pressure from legislative leaders, Youth Commission officials had paroled 19 and discharged three others — and promised that the others would soon be gone.With respect to Mr. Madden, he needs to doublecheck the text of the law the Legislature authored. It may have been his "intent" for misdemeanants to be immediately released from TYC, but I don't think that accurately represents what the text of the law states. TYC still has to follow the written statutes, they're not mind readers.
At the time, agency spokesman Jim Hurley said officials were working quickly to release the remaining youths responsibly, "not just kick them out on the street. ... It's my understanding that we'll have most of them released by today."
On Tuesday, new statistics provided to lawmakers showed that 303 remain in Youth Commission lockups. Of those, 71 are past their minimum length of stay, a memo shows.
"As I said two months ago, they should be moving these kids out as quickly as possible, because that was the Legislature's intent," House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden said after reviewing the new numbers.
"But they're not moving very fast. And it's difficult for me to comprehend why, especially since they've been trying so hard to get the (youths convicted of violent crimes) out so fast."
Those offenders are all 19- and 20-year-olds serving sentences, some for 40 years, for violent, aggravated crimes. Youth Commission officials recommended in June that 134 be paroled and at least 17 be transferred to adult prisons.
But amid worries about public safety and finger-pointing between agency and parole officials, those releases have been delayed. Many of the youths have records of assaulting staff and other youths, not finishing treatment or rehabilitation programs and committing other disciplinary infractions.
Hurley said the misdemeanants are being reviewed monthly.
"If they meet the criteria for release, we are releasing them," he said. "If they are still here, they are still completing programs. We release them when they are ready, not before."
The Willie Horton Effect: Youth crime reporting without context
While Ward covered the public policy questions, the Houston Chronicle's Lisa Sandberg offered up this article Tuesday ("Rearrests of freed TYC prisoners raise alarm," Aug. 28) that gave prosecutors a platform to attempt a "Willie Horton" gambit, singling out an alleged crime by a single recidivist youth, then using it as a scare item without analyzing the whys and wherefores of the situation.
Sandberg's piece focused on Howard McJunkin, who raped an elderly woman 13 days after being paroled from TYC for a similar crime:
McJunkin is one of 2,200 offenders the TYC rushed to release this year as part of an effort to drastically reduce the population of the scandal-plagued juvenile corrections system. Nearly one in five of those parolees — 408 — have been rearrested for committing new offenses, including McJunkin and 42 others for violent crimes, documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle reveal.The article points out that the 408 rearrests amounts to a 20% recidivism rate, meaning about 2% of freed offenders committed violent offenses after they were released. About 90% of rearrests according to this data were for nonviolent offenses.
By combining the focus on McJunkin with hyped stats about a 20% recidivism rate, the story makes it appear that 20% of TYC releasees are potential rapists on the loose. That's not true at all from the available data, but that's how the article is framed.
Other statements in the article raise questions about whether McJunkin's case should be a cause for serious concern or if it's a result of TYC's new policies. Sandberg reports, "high recidivism rates have long been a fact of life for TYC — 50 percent of parolees offend again within three years." So is 20% new arrests out of the ordinary at this stage in the process? There's no way to tell. The number was just tossed out there with no context to understand it. In addition:
While the Legislature this spring enacted a series of agency-wide reforms in an effort to address a sex abuse scandal, including closing TYC to offenders between the ages of 19 and 21 and those who committed misdemeanor offenses, they left untouched TYC's current criteria for paroling juveniles. (Emphasis added.)In other words, youth parole laws are the same as they've been for years - the Legislature changed nothing in that regard. It was TYC's new administrators who changed the rules this spring to qualify more youth offenders for parole, but those Administrative Code changes received no MSM coverage and no one - not legislators nor even youth advocates - submitted comments on the rules before they were enacted.
I was disappointed in Sandberg's article - it provided data with no context and an incomplete analysis of why more youth are being paroled. It's goal seemed to be to create a Willie Horton effect, not to illuminate the public policy choices facing the state regarding juvenile corrections.
What Mr. McJunkin did was terrible, but the other 2,199 recent TYC releasees are not responsible for his crime and shouldn't be punished for it. Focusing on extreme cases creates bad public policy when you apply its "lessons" indiscriminately to everyone. TYC, its legislative overseers, and yes, the media covering the agency all need to use better judgment than that.
RELATED: See also Grits' pre-hearing coverage and these recent guest columns about the Texas Youth Commission:
- Dr. Bill Bush: TYC and the Lessons of Mountain View
- Howard Hickman: TYC General Counsel could have prevented wrongful incarceration of TYC youth
- Anthony Mikulastik: "If I had been paid a million dollars to destroy TYC I could not have done a better job"