Even though the Texas Youth Commission's incarcerated population has dropped by almost half in two years, the annual cost of locking up juvenile offenders in Texas has climbed to almost $99,000 per inmate — a 66 percent jump since 2006.
With a tight state budget and a tough economy, legislative leaders say that is too costly, and they are moving to cut spending at the commission. ...
The Youth Commission budget dropped from $314.9 million in 2008 to $237 million in 2009, according to Legislative Budget Board figures. Whitmire and others say it could be reduced further.
"I think we could better deliver a lot of the services, a lot of the programs for these youth, in the communities and not at TYC units," [Sen. John] Whitmire said.
The agency's initial budget request was $249.1 million for 2010 and $253.8 million for 2011. But at a recent meeting, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, told Townsend to return with a pared-down version. She said she is in the process of complying.
Although legislative leaders have yet to see the new figures, Senate budget writers are expected to begin discussing their own reductions, perhaps as soon as today — including discussions about possibly closing two additional lockups.
Complaints about high per-youth costs strike me as odd considering the agency is still in the midst of a major, legislatively mandated transition. A little historical context would be helpful to this discussion.
The biggest reason TYC costs increased so much per student is precisely that, when the sex abuse scandal broke in 2007, the inmate-to-staff ratio systemwide was at 24-1. In response, the Lege mandated that TYC reduce that ratio to 12-1, but by definition that meant doubling the number of staff per student. So it only stands to reason cost per youth would increase - how could it not? That's what the Lege told TYC to do.
In addition, guarding is not TYC's only responsibility. To remedy existing shortcomings in special education services, for example, the state will have to spend more per youth, not less. Ditto for mental health services. Even if TYC's staffing costs for guards are too high (and I'm not sure that's true if they want to keep the staffing ratio at 12-1), they're still under-resourced in other areas.
Finally, it might be true that these service could be delivered more cheaply "in the communities," as Sen. Whitmire said, but it's also possible such services could be shortchanged or not delivered at all if the responsibility were left to the counties. That would certainly be cheaper, but to the extent the programming is necessary and improves safety (and otherwise, why does the Lege require it?), it wouldn't help rehabilitate youth. After all, most were sent to TYC precisely because county juvenile probation departments couldn't handle them with the resources available.
I don't inherently have a stake in maintaining the status quo at Texas' youth prison system; if they could eliminate TYC tomorrow and successfully replace it with higher quality community-based services run by the counties, I wouldn't shed a tear.
But neither do I harbor any illusion that radical change would be easy or that all counties are currently capable of managing youth that right now are headed to TYC. Plus it's likely counties would be subject to the same budgetary yo-yo effect seen with state youth prisons - ordered to add staff, e.g., then chastised for how much it costs.
Merging TYC with the Juvenile Probation Commission may or may not be a good idea, but it's likely not the case that it would be cheaper or easier to manage - in fact, arguably the opposite will be true.