At last the House and Senate are talking to each other at the Texas Legislature to iron out differences in their approaches on juvenile justice. Several hours of testimony yesterday about proposed pilot programs and the future of TYC revealed a surprisingly high amount of support for the county pilots on all sides—albeit with some caveats. There were some tense moments in the discussion, often even when conflicting legislators basically agreed. But by the end of the evening, it might not be a stretch to say the Lege is finally moving toward a consensus for supporting more community-based programs to divert kids from TYC.
The most significant development was probably a commitment from Sen. John Whitmire to try to replace the Title IV E foster care funds that have dried up from the federal government. Additional funds to fill the gap were in the House budget but not the Senate’s, which was Juvenile Probation Executive Director Vicki Spriggs’ primary concern. “I have never been against the pilots,” Spriggs said four times. “I have been for Title IV E dollars, and those are very important to me for the bigger picture.”
Counties were concerned that the legislature was going to fund the pilot programs instead of replacing Title IV-E funding. Several people who testified thanked Whitmire throughout the hearing for making the commitment to try to find replacement funds for the lost Title IV E funds
Travis County District Judge Jeanne Meurer, who has been working closely with Sen. Whitmire to develop his diversion initiative, declared the proposed “pilots” are not new, experimental, or untested programs as the phrase might imply. She said they would provide “tried-and-true programming” to divert kids from TYC, though she also strongly supports adequately funding the agency. Meurer said the counties need funding to keep diverting kids, but she does not support a competitive grant program because it doesn’t make sense to compare different counties with different populations and different needs.
Meurer said that the scandal at TYC forced her to fundamentally rethink her approach about who Travis County should be sending to TYC and who could be helped in community based settings. Not long ago, she said, Travis County sent more than 100 kids per year to TYC; in 2008 they sent 16.
Dallas juvie probation chief Michael Griffiths suggested pilot counties would accept a "cap" on the number of commitments to TYC - perhaps cutting the total they send each year by half - if they received new funding for diversion programming. He said the program could be structured so that counties must return money to the state if they go over the cap. (The decision whether to send youth to TYC will still be made by judges, he pointed out, not the probation departments - see a memo describing his suggestions.)
William Carter from Fort Bend Counties gave legislators a copy of a plan (downloadable here) from counties in the Southeast region of the state and said he believes they can divert many youth currently going to TYC if the pilots are adequately funded.
Rep. Ruth McClendon, who authored the House Sunset bill, said even with the most ideal pilot program in “Timbuktu county,” focused on mental illness and substance abuse programs and keeping kids out of TYC, it’s still necessary to make sure TYC gets the funding it needs:
“There are going to be SOME kids who are not going to fare well in my program, and no matter innovative my program is, those kids are just not going to be able to complete my program successfully and those judges are not going to sit back and let those kids terrorize the community because the state says it’s better for them to stay at home. They’re going to be burning down three and four house a night, biting off their neighbor’s ears and feet and toes, and the judge is going to say this kid cannot stay here. Timbuktu is going to be safer if I send this kid somewhere, and TYC is the place that kid is going to go. You can’t TYC down to the minimum bones.”
Whitmire bristled at the suggestion that he wants to underfund TYC, insisting that he simply doesn’t believe the reduced TYC population merits a higher budget than the Senate proposed. “There is no way that an organization that used to have a population of 5000 needs the same money” they used to get when they’re now “about the size of a junior high,” he said. “I’ll give them more damn money if they want to justify it,” he added.
Sen. Whitmire lauded TYC chief Cherie Townsend, “who’s got great vision” for continuing to implement SB 103 reforms, but emphasized that it “should be the legislature doing vision and planning with [Cherie’s] input.” Townsend made it clear that the pilot programs are not inconsistent with trying to regionalize TYC but expressed the hope that there is a clear plan for evaluating the pilots’ success. “We need evidence-based models,” she told them, but assured the committee, “whatever the will of the legislature is, we’ll participate in that.”
Michele Deitch, a UT LBJ School professor representing the Blue Ribbon Task Force on TYC, testified that the task force “strongly supports the proposed juvenile probation pilot projects” and that the pilot project proposals address numerous recommendations in the Blue Ribbon Report. The Report called on policymakers to “emphasize keeping youth in the community” and to redirect savings from decreased incarceration to prevention and community-based programs. The Task Force had also recommended limiting TYC placements to high-risk and chronic felons, and moving TYC towards a more regionalized system of care, consistent with the proposals discussed at the hearing.
Advocacy groups also support the programs as long as they “promote evidence-based nonresidential programs,” testified Isela Gutierrez from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Several also called for a system of independent data collection that shows what’s really working in the programs.
MORE: See coverage of the hearing from the Austin Statesman's Mike Ward.