So I suppose it's my affinity for that movie and the spirit of the season that made me hone in on TYC acting executive director Dimitria Pope's newest declaration about the youth under her care.
Today in the Dallas News, Emily Ramshaw identifies reform practices perhaps best modeled in Missouri ("In Missouri, 'unprisonment,'" Dec. 16), which significantly animated the recommendations of Texas' "Blue Ribbon Panel" on reforming the juvenile corrections system:
Ms. Pope's comments to Ramshaw sum up exactly the problem that Governor Perry's "Blue Ribbon Panel" identified at TYC (see their report, pdf): The prevailing "punishment culture" dictated from the top management down instead of a focus on rehabilitation. A companion DMN article by Gregg Jones and Doug Swanson ("10 months after scandal, problems plague Texas Youth Commission," Dec. 16) quoted one of the national experts asked by Gov. Perry this spring for advice on TYC offering a much different assessment:
a juvenile justice model that national experts say has turned Missouri's state system from an abuse-ridden institutional nightmare to an industry gold standard for juvenile rehabilitation.
States across the country have taken note. Rarely a week goes by that Missouri officials aren't playing host to touring juvenile justice advocates or advising on proposed pilots in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., New Mexico or California.
But it is a model the Texas Youth Commission is not embracing.
For some Texas officials, it's just not the right time. For others, it's too dramatic a change and simply not punitive enough.
"The youth who are [incarcerated] in Texas, the court sent them here to restrict their behavior," said Dimitria Pope, TYC's acting executive director. "These are kids who have cut off their angel wings. This is a corrections environment."
"The way they're going, a correctional model, is a dead loser," said Dr. Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "That's not going to get them anyplace. It's never gotten anyone anyplace, except court."So far, Dr. Krisberg, the answer is "yes." Perhaps when Governor Perry gets back from Iowa he'll have had time to think things over and reconsider.
Dr. Krisberg was a member of the TYC-appointed task force whose report the agency rejected this year. The task force advocated, among other things, a "home-like environment" for inmates.
"The question is," he said, "is Texas going to tolerate being the embarrassment of the nation on this?"
Naturally, Ms. Pope disagrees, reports the News: "Dimitria Pope, TYC's acting executive director, was asked to gauge the agency's current progress. 'I'm going to say excellent,' she answered," adding "I say we have turned the ship."
On that last comment, this blogger, Ms. Pope, and Mr. Krisberg all agree: Krisberg, Grits, and other critics simply wish the ship hadn't been turned toward the nearest iceberg!
Finally, an unsigned staff editorial accompanying the Dallas News article asks point blank whether the agency could be mostly sunsetted out of existence ("California is dismantling its youth [prison] system; could Texas?"). In California, the "state will pay the counties to take the youths. For some counties, though, it's a burden that they're not yet prepared to deal with." (As an aside, I suggested in "Surviving the TYC Meltdown" that counties must prepare precisely to deal with that coming future burden.) Editorialized the Dallas News, "If the plan does work, advocates may be pushing Texas to go the same way. "California and Texas face the same problems," Dr. Krisberg said. "Texas is worse: more corruption, more abuse."
The only disagreement I'd have with the Dallas News' assessment is the use of the future conditional tense, "may be": Advocates have been pushing for Texas to go the same way for many months. That's the direction the Texas Legislature was led to believe would be pursued when the Blue Ribbon Panel was appointed and Missouri's experts were paraded before Texas legislative committees to talk about best practices.
It's only since the appointment of a cadre of career bureaucrats from the adult prison system to TYC that rehabilitation has become a dirty word. For Ms. Pope and the people with whom she surrounds herself, these are all "kids who have cut off their angel wings" - her job is to lock 'em up, they can't be rehabilitated, by this logic. Public safety be damned: Forget that nearly all will re-enter society in just a few years, apparently.
Their "angel wings" have been clipped: If even God has forsaken them, why should Dimitria Pope or the state of Texas care what happens to them? (Oh, and by the way, Merry Christmas! Ho, ho, ho.)
I find I'm seldom unhappy when Governor Perry leaves the state - like most politicians he tends to do less damage when he's away from his desk - but he couldn't give TYC employees a better Christmas present than to git back home to Texas and appoint a competent, new conservator. Even I'm becoming weary of the seemingly continuous drumbeat of bad news coming out of the Texas Youth Commission, but this attitude, what the Blue Ribbon Panel called TYC's punishment culture, simply invites controversy and litigation, as Krisberg and many others have repeatedly told them.
Nothing this agency does seems to work. Just yesterday the Dallas News reported that "TYC's drug treatment program produces graduates who are more likely to re-offend after release than addicted inmates who did not participate." Nearly every day some new disgrace seems to crop up damning the current administration and pointing toward some looming, radical transformation, for good or ill, in TYC's near future.
Since her appointment, Ms. Pope has blamed underlings, the prior administration, private contractors, "corrupt" and "illiterate" employees, "white women," and now the youth themselves for TYC's mismanagement. Perhaps over the holidays the acting executive director will find an opportunity to locate a mirror when she's looking for someone to blame.
Or at least carve out a couple of hours to watch "It's a Wonderful Life."