While Sen. Whitmire criticized TYC for "spending money out there like a drunken sailor," the Statesman editorial board today offered a more measured analysis of the situation with which I mostly agree:
A day after blasting the Texas Youth Commission for continued financial mismanagement, two key legislative leaders this afternoon requested a full state audit of all spending by the still-troubled agency.
“The Texas Youth Commission is continuing a pattern of, what appears to us, a willful disregard for the spending parameters set by the Legislature,” Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, said in the letter to Auditor John Keel.
“TYC was placed into Conservatorship due to gross fiscal mismanagement. We want to ensure that gross fiscal mismanagement is not continuing.
The letter continues: “Instead of spending money retaining and attracting new JCO’s, TYC has chosen to increase central office personnel. In addition, we have seen evidence that large salary increases are being given to executive staff members. Yet today, our juvenile correctional system sits without a functional classification system or proven treatment and educational programs.
“We understand that they are continuing to spend millions of dollars worth of capital improvements on facilities that were recommended for closure by your office utilizing funds to continue their operations that were not appropriated for that purpose.”
This week, the agency released a proposed "regionalization" plan that would shrink, but not close, several units, while opening new lockups and halfway houses. The plan includes a major facility, costing as much as $25 million, to be built in the Houston area and to house 150 youths.
As Nedelkoff reasonably points out, "A significant number of youth and their families live in or near large urban areas. However, TYC facilities are rarely located within reasonable traveling distance from those urban areas."
Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, criticized the plan with a pointed remark: "Twenty-two percent of their beds are vacant right now, and they're proposing to build a bunch of new units run by the state? That's crazy."
The commission, Whitmire said, should have recommended closing some units in "remote, rundown rural areas" and put more emphasis on developing community-based programs rather than locking up youths.
It's going to take legislators, though, to take on the job of actually closing Youth Commission units in rural areas. They are there because some lawmakers over the years pushed to get them to provide at least some state job opportunities for constituents in high unemployment areas.
Nedelkoff is right to want youths whose offenses are serious enough to lock them up kept closer to home — even if society is quite willing to ship them to the wilds of West Texas. It's one thing to give up on a 35-year-old lifelong criminal. We shouldn't quit on a 15-year-old yet.
Still, the agency and the Legislature remain too much at odds. The worst abuses done to offenders may have been stopped, but reform is a long way from complete.
Here's the bottom line: TYC isn't using all its capacity, but if it actually shifted to a regionalized system with smaller facilities, it would still require new building. TYC has lots of capacity but nearly all of it's designed on the adult prison model that the Legislature has been urged to move away from.
So when Nedelkoff speaks of building 8 new halfway houses, for example, that to me doesn't seem inconsistent with expert advice the Lege received from other states and Governor Perry's blue-ribbon panel on TYC reform last year. I'm less convinced of the need for building larger lockups, like a proposed 150-person facility. If new money will be spent on construction it should go to build the types of smaller units we want to move toward in the future.
Even if responsibility for these youth ultimately shifts to the counties, new construction of smaller, regional facilities will be necessary because they just don't have capacity at the moment to handle the load. So I don't necessarily think Nedelkoff is moving entirely in the wrong direction, though I don't agree with all of the plan. But it's painfully obvious he's not done the legwork necessary to convince the legislative leadership they need to undertake this shift. Since Mr. Nedelkoff will be leaving soon, that Sysiphian struggle will fall to someone else.