County Budget Officer David Smith said his staff's initial estimates showed the potential costs are "huge" - construction could be $74 million for a county facility (280 beds) and $111 million for a regional one (420 beds). Running the place could cost $16 million a year or $32 million a year respectively.To be fair, I think his fellow senators have walked Chairman Whitmire back off the ledge a bit, and the discussion at the last public hearing on TYC focused more on "regional" TYC facilities instead of shifting responsibility to the counties wholesale.
To put it in perspective, he reminded them that a penny on the tax rate generates about $8 million.
That said, county officials in Bexar and elsewhere must recognize that the state has already shifted a great deal of new responsibility and cost their way, whether they're aware of it or not. Much attention was paid during session to a new law requiring counties to handle misdemeanants, but more importantly, another reaction to scandals last year was for the now-former executive director to change rules to dramatically shorten stays for TYC youth.
As a result, TYC's inmate population declined from around 4,500 when the West Texas sex scandal broke to about 2,300 now, estimated to decline below 2,000 or lower by year's end. Hundreds of such kids are already back in their home communities, and IMO not enough attention has been paid to their re-entry or adequately providing services to keep them on the right path and prevent recidivism.
Chairman Whitmire has insisted that whatever is done won't be an unfunded mandate, so it's good for Bexar and other counties to figure out up front what costs would be if they take on more of the serious juvenile justice cases. I hope, though, that local bureaucrats don't trump up ridiculously high numbers just to try to kill the proposal (e.g., I don't think anyone's talking about requiring Bexar to build its own lockup - I think that's a red herring).
Instead, juvenile probation departments should take this opportunity to assess their community treatment needs, P.O. salaries, juvie mental health services and other programming that's already being impacted by depopulating TYC by nearly 50% over the last year. There's a severe shortage of chemical dependency counselors, licensed sex offender treatment, and other services that are needed for both incarcerated youth and local community supervision.
To understand juvenile justice in the big picture, commissioners and others must recognize that counties already handle about 98% of juvenile offenders through the probation department and local detention centers. As such, perhaps this will be a chance to pay for long-needed infrastructure that can both service kids on probation and new kids coming back early from TYC.
No matter what, if counties are to have more responsibility, they need more control. I've thought it silly, especially now that the average length of stay in TYC is so much shorter (sometimes less than nine months), that juvenile probation and parole in most areas remain separate entities (probation controlled by local judges, parole controlled by TYC), even though both perform community supervision functions and deal with the same group of kids.
Some counties contract with TYC where the agency doesn't have its own parole division, and I actually think that's a better solution. That way, the same people would supervise the youth before they go to prison and when they get out. Nobody starts from scratch. The trick is, the state historically has underfunded such positions, and there'd need to be some mechanism to ensure the financial burden doesn't shift to the counties.
Finally, some discussion was given up front to opposition to new corrections infrastructure by NIMBY groups. As I've argued previously, the Legislature needs to do something to break this logjam, which is going to thwart many community corrections goals if they fail to act.
It's good for counties to begin planning ahead, and I commend Bexar for doing so, but there's no need yet for alarmist reactions. Instead, the debate over TYC's future during the next year will be a good chance for counties to evaluate what they need to do to improve local systems, which almost universally is something they need to do anyway.