That action raised a hue and cry from local judges, probation departments and detention centers who complained that repeat misdemeanor offenders were often their most difficult cases where they'd exhausted local resources and required state support. Indeed, the data support that claim. According to information supplied by the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission (published in "Meltdown"), youth sentenced to TYC for misdemeanors came into the system with significant problems:
- 45% had a prior felony adjudication
- The average number of adjudications prior to commitment was 3
- 69% had at least one prior placement
- 40% needed mental health treatment
- 44% needed chemical dependency treatment
How did Grits readers feel about the policy decision to exclude misdemeanants from TYC? Of the 120 readers who responded to Grits' survey, these were the responses. Folks believed misdemeanants should be sent to TYC when:
- They have three or more prior misdemeanor adjudications (50%)
- They have a prior felony adjudication (53%)
- They had at least one prior placement in a secure facility (31%)
- They need chemical dependency treatment unavailable in the home county (22%)
- They need mental health treatment unavailable in the home county (22%)
- No, kids with misdemeanors should never be sent to TYC (35%)
We don't do a very good CD programs given they don't pay our CD treatment providers what they should. Mental Health... not enough beds and quit frankly, they don't pay our psychologists what they really deserve, so TYC is no help here either.Several TYC field staff expressed the view that misdemeanants were among the most difficult TYC inmates, for example:
My experience supports that of the Probation and that misdemeanor offenders who get to TYC often have a slew of misdemeanor offenses i.e. a long history of troubled behavior.Another reader, though, feared that mixing misdemeanants with more serious offenders tended to increase their criminality and reduce their chances for rehabilitation:
General Offenders, often misdemeanor offenders, in my experience often displayed worse behavior than Violent Offenders. Violent Offender is just a classification of the type offense a youth was committed for and not indicative of the behavior a youth might display. Many so called Violent Offenders often have short offense histories but committed a offense that warranted incarceration in TYC.
Who is easier to work with...long term habitual offender or a kid who recently fell into a bad crowd or began acting out due to some recent traumatic life event but otherwise has pro-social value systems?
I agree that the misdemeanants tend to be the worst-behaved in TYC. However, mixing in youth whose primary problem is that they are rebellious, and high-strung, with youth who are serious criminals, creates more problems. The more criminal type kids sit back and set the others off. The "wild ones" create a distraction for staff which allows their attention to be drawn away from the more criminal kids. These wild kids are not leaders, they are follows who desparately want to believe they are accepted by their "peers". Those kids who have long strings of misdemeanors do not need to be mixed in with the felons. There should be separate programs for each.With all that said, and with respect to the 65% of readers who disagree, I think at the end of the day excluding misdemeanants, at least in the short term, was the right thing to do (though I acknowledge that the Lege created new unfunded mandates, a dilemma which needs to be rectified).
It is obvious that these kids have exhausted the local resources, so I sympathize with those local juvenile justice officials who are pulling their hair out over the recent ban on sending misdemeanants to TYC. The solution, possibly, might be a legislative mandate that allows judges to send youth with strings of misdemeanors to TYC, but which also requires TYC to treat them in separate facilities from the felons. Those units might be the ones that are placed close to the cities of origin.
For starters, Harris County judges abuse the privilege, and as the largest county they send far more youth to TYC than anybody else. What's more, if kids aren't getting services at TYC and if there's no rehabilitation plan (which is currently the case), I'm not sure warehousing low-level offenders for a few months would do any good.
If TYC were in better shape, my gut instinct would be to allow counties to send misdemeanants there, at a minimum, when they didn't have adequate mental health or drug treatment resources available locally. But if those resources aren't being supplied at TYC - and I believe that's true because of understaffing and misplaced priorities among TYC management - what's the point of sending them there?
To the extent it's true, as several readers suggested, that many teen misdemeanants committed to the Youth Commission could have been charged with felonies but had charges reduced by lenient prosecutors, those kids will continue to come into TYC, anyway. Also, though I don't think it's the right thing to do, I'd anticipate more juvenile judges ordering longer felony probation terms than previously, so that if the kid commits a misdemeanor later they could still be sent up the river.
Some counties are headed the opposite direction, and I applaud them for it. At the JJAT conference, Travis County juvenile probation chief Estela Medina told me that Austin judges had sent only three youth to TYC since the scandals broke last spring - all of them for serious offenses, and the rest, including all misdemeanants, are being handled in the community because Travis officials don't believe kids will be rehabilitated or treated properly at TYC-run youth prisons.
I think Travis County is headed in the right path, one where ultimately all Texas counties will be forced to follow - using TYC literally only for the worst of the worst, incorrigible murderers, youth who committed sexual assaults, or other violent offenders who commit serious crimes and receive determinate sentences.
TYC handles only about 2% of Texas youth who commit crimes, while local probation departments and detention centers handle the rest. There is very little TYC offers for most offenders that the counties cannot do themselves given additional financial support.
For all those reasons, I broadly agree with the Legislature's decision to exclude misdemeanants from TYC, though I don't think they provided adequate funds for locals to take over the job. However, both TYC and TJPC are under Sunset review next year, so the opportunity for significant structural reform to support these goals may emerge in the coming year and a half.
For better or worse, for the time being SB 103 set in stone the ban on misdemeanor commitments to TYC, and there's a good chance that policy will (and IMO should) continue into the future.
To prepare for what's down the road, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission should closely track and analyze how counties spend new money given to them to handle misdemeanants. Since these are among their most difficult populations, the resources they consume with those funds will tell us what local resources need to be bolstered through legislative action in 2009 to enable counties to handle a greater percentage of more difficult offenders - both misdemeanants and nonviolent felons - in the community where staffing ratios are better, the risk of abuse is less, and youths' chances for success are much higher.
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