Toward the end of the hearing, new TYC Executive Director Cherie Townsend reported for her first day on the job, telling lawmakers she was ready to work hard on reforms but that she wasn't "a magician or a miracle worker."We've seen such statements often enough now for me to become frustrated with the combination of sweeping, profound and unresolved implications coupled with a complete lack of specific detail about what such a transformation might look like. So I called up Sen. Whitmire at his Houston district office to get some answers straight from the horse's mouth, and we had a good chat.
At this point, maybe that's about all that could save TYC. Whitmire told me Wednesday he's ready to abolish it, go back to the drawing board and completely remodel the place, maybe merge it with another agency.
After all the scandal, all the reform, all the new blood, it's inexcusable that the agency spends hours in a bureaucratic fight rather than tackling real issues affecting troubled youth.
All the while, as the number of offenders within the agency has dropped by half in the past year to about the size of my high school in Seguin — about 2,200 inmates — its bureaucracy has become bloated and administrators' salaries have increased.
Maybe it's time to face the fact that rehab isn't working for TYC. This may be one agency that can't be reformed.
Bottom line: Given how close we are to session and how improbably the stars would have to align to make his vision happen, even Sen. Whitmire granted that "abolishing" TYC likely couldn't happen next session, although he held out hope, he said, that the Sunset Advisory Commission report might recommend changes in that direction. He said the Sunset bill would be the obvious vehicle for any radical transformations to the agency.
Even so, Whitmire currently has no written proposal, not even a set of bullet points, for what transforming TYC might look like - no draft set of principles, to hand around to garner support. "It's all up here in my head," said the Senate Dean, though he insisted his ideas had been well received among the county officials and juvenile court judges with whom he'd discussed them.
The closest thing to a concrete, written plan, he told me, came a couple of months ago when there were serious, behind the scenes discussions at the highest levels, including the Governor's office, over whether TYC should simply be merged into the Juvenile Probation Commission. These meetings never got beyond the discussion phase, said Whitmire, because state attorneys determined the merger would require legislative action and couldn't simply be done by gubernatorial fiat, even during a conservatorship.
For the record, to assuage fears oft repeated by TYC employee commenters, Whitmire agreed that it would be a "mistake" to merge TYC with TDCJ, and said that possibly putting it under the Juvenile Probation Commission's control was the only serious proposal on the table. Even if TYC didn't exist as an agency, though, he said there would still be a need for state facilities like the one in Giddings to house the most serious, violent offenders.
Otherwise, said the senator, TYC facilities should be located closer to urban centers with better access to services necessary for taking care of the kids and staffing rehabilitation programs. He spoke approvingly of TYC re-opening a new privately-run facility at Eagle Lake in Colorado County near Houston. He also was gratified that the new regionalization plan proposed by TYC was "adopting some of my ideas."
At a minimum, Whitmire would like to see several rural TYC facilities closed - especially Victory Field, Crockett and the smaller West Texas units, with one main West Texas facility left to serve that region. He's particularly unhappy at the overreliance on rural facilities because he thinks it will "never" be possible to provide them adequate health care, mental health or rehabilitation services. There's simply no pool of professionals to draw on and no incentive for quality people to move there, he said, and he thinks UTMB's "telemedicine" system where inmates are examined by video isn't getting the job done.
Most of Whitmire's ideas sound good when he describes them, and his intentions are noble, not nihilistic - he thinks busting up the existing structure and radically changing how juvenile justice operates is the only way to actually shift toward a "Missouri-model" approach, and maybe he's right. But the devil is always in the details, so as previously I'll continue to reserve judgment until seeing what's actually proposed.
I've got a nagging fear the Senator may be a surprised to learn that shifting TYC youth to counties will probably cost more than the current set-up, despite what he portrays as a bloated central office bureaucracy at TYC. That's because of reduced economies of scale and increased reliance on private vendors in a market where there are few available private beds. Plus, as TYC learned with the Coke County debacle, even when you privatize operations, the state still must pay for staffing to provide aggressive oversight or be liable for their failings.
As an aside, though the senator and I didn't discuss it, one thing I'd like to see shifted entirely to counties, no matter what, are TYC's parole functions. Some counties already contract to perform them and it only makes sense to have the same folks supervising youth before and after they get out to maximize continuity and seamlessness of transition from a facility to community supervision.
In all, it sounded like Sen. Whitmire would like to move more radically toward decentralizing the juvenile justice system and shifting the maximum amount of control and responsibility to the counties, but his fallback position, to me, doesn't sound dramatically different from the direction the conservator's "regionalization" plan would take the agency.