To me, the more interesting development on Tuesday concerned the committee's squelching of yet another rural county's ploy to use incarceration - in this case, of juveniles - as an economic development gambit. In 2007, the Texas Youth Commission operated 14 secure juvenile detention facilities. Today they're down to five. The ones that remain are large facilities with antiquated layouts not conducive to what nearly everybody recognizes as modern best practices: Smaller facilities aimed at providing rehabilitation and education services as opposed to mere incarceration.
Local officials spent $700,000 rehabbing the old Crockett State School facility as a detention center, Crockett Mayor Wayne Mask told the committee. He expressly disagreed with the assertion by Whitmire, Sen. Juan Hinojosa, and others that prisons shouldn't be thought of as "economic development," declaring that in the "real world" that's exactly how local communities viewed them.
When the Crockett State School closed its doors in 2011, said Mask, the town lost one of its largest employers that had provided upwards of 300 jobs. The facility doesn’t lend itself to many kinds of businesses, he said, so they decided to turn it into a regional juvenile detention center to house delinquent youth from surrounding counties, contracting with a private prison company called Cornerstone to manage operations. The company held a recent job fair seeking applications for 40 positions and 400 people showed up hoping to fill them, said the mayor. But the economics of the deal won't work, the committee was told, unless Cornerstone can count on at least 70 youth detainees from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Chairman Whitmire and the rest of the committee put an end to those hopes on Tuesday, telling local officials and their legislator-representatives that the agency had not given Cornerstone any letter of intent or other official confirmation and, with 400 empty beds at state-owned facilities, would not be authorized to do so. Local media had already portrayed Crockett's reopening as a done deal, so this was quite a slap in the face to the area's officials, who clearly jumped the gun. Whitmire and other senators said that, if the agency were to open new facilities, they would be smaller units in Texas' largest urban areas that contribute the most youth to TJJD's secure facilities - most likely in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. The chairman compared Crockett's situation to Jones County, which built a speculative prison and contracted with a private firm hoping to secure adult TDCJ inmates to fill it. The project went bust when the inmates never materialized.
Outgoing executive director Mike Griffiths spent much of the hearing being berated for mismanagement, in particular for the supposedly high cost ($129K per student per year) of incarcerating TJJD youth. To me, though, the cost issue is a bit of a red herring. First, youth inmates inherently cost more than adults to incarcerate because by law (and federal court mandates) the state must provide educational and treatment services that for the most part don't exist in the adult system. Moreover, in the wake of the 2007 sex scandals, the Lege installed numerous layers of oversight that must be staffed on the administrative side. Griffiths listed several of them: An auditor, the ombudsman, an inspector general, an administrative investigation division, a youth complaint hotline (euphemistically known as "blue phones"), a monitoring and inspection division, and youth rights specialists, among others. Couple that with 12-1 staffing ratios (quadruple that of county jails) and the agency's educational mission and it's little wonder TJJD has disproportionately more admin staff and higher costs the Texas Department of Criminal Justice pays to house adults.
The three year recidivism rate for TJJD inmates is higher than on the adult side, with 77% rearrested within three years of release and 48% re-incarcerated in either the juvenile or adult systems. OTOH, Griffiths pointed out, the three-year rearrest rate for similar classes of youth kept at the county level is 67%, so not that much lower. And it's possible the TJJD cohort represents, overall, a higher risk group of offenders than those who stay with the counties.
Griffiths also took a lot of crap for not having yet eliminated all staff positions at the Corsicana unit even though the last of the youth moved out of there in December. His reasoning, though, to me seemed sound. The agency was told in a budget rider to close a facility and chose Corsicana. But it cannot finalize that decision until it gets the go-ahead from the Legislative Budget Board, where the House and Senate have been unable to reach an agreement. (Speaker Joe Straus and others have voiced support for keeping the unit open.) Most of the staff positions at Corsicana have already been eliminated. Some of those remaining are trainers - the agency still conducts training in Corsicana for staff from around the state in conjunction with Navarro Junior College. Some are maintenance staff, some work for human resources, and five are JCOs who continue to provide security. (Until LBB pulls the trigger, it's still technically a secure facility.) Griffiths said as soon as LBB made its decision, those last 25 positions would be eliminated or moved to other locales. Until then, he didn't feel he had authority under the rider to shutter it outright.
The most damning indictment of TJJD came not on the financial side but as it relates to security, in particular at the Evins unit in South Texas which was the subject of a truly awful report by the Ombudsman after a December site visit. Grits asked for a copy of the Evins report under open records. I've uploaded the whole thing, for those interested, but here are some lowlights I pulled from the 8-page text:
"The culture on campus degraded." Many incidents were observed including a youth that took food off a staff's tray and staff did not react until I inquired; when staff reacted, the youth continued to eat part of the food he took; the same youth held up movement by refusing to leave the cafe."The staff involved in leaving cell doors open so youth could fight were fired and some are being prosecuted, the committee was told. Still, the Evins report represents far more serious concerns, to me, than any of the financial critiques. The Ombudsman told the committee that some of the problems occurred because senior managers had been moved to other facilities and their replacements weren't up to snuff. TJJD has moved more experienced people into those positions since the report and she thought that had improved matters, though the problems weren't yet completely fixed.
"Numerous youths, and one in particular, cursed loudly at staff and visitors repeatedly. Few staff attempted to intervene and that consisted of only asking the youth to quiet down and identifying the visitors to the youth. Youths threw food and created a mess in the cafe by emptying food tray(s) onto the table and floor and completely disregarded staffs' instructions."
"Discussion with staff included that the facility was staffed at approximately sixty seven percent resulting in staff having to work consecutive shifts and being 'burned out' or tired."
"There were several additional incidents of staffs requesting cells be opened with multiple youths around the cells and staff walking away once the cells were opened leaving the youths unsupervised and allowing the youths to fight inside the cells. JCO VI on count was in the office performing administrative functions instead of supervising youths and the other JCO went off the pod creating the opportunity for four youths to assault another youth; male JCO left a cell door open and two youths went in to the open cell and fought, and a female JCO left a cell door open and did not supervise the youths. This resulted in two youths fighting in the cell."
"Some JCO staff reported that some staff had been known to minimize inappropriate staff behavior in reports. ... discussion with some facility management confirmed the allegation."
"Numerous youth complained about a lack of hygiene and clothing items. Discusssion with staff reflected that there had been some shortage and that one dorm lost both the JCO V and VI" (which are supervisory positions).
"A review of all eleven grievances entered this [fiscal] year reflects a lack of video review" by management.
"Educational services are suffering from a lack of teachers and teacher's assistants (TA), teachers' refusal to stay at work past 4:30 despite being exempt employees, and allegations that teacher's aides are performing full teacher functions without being supervised by certified teachers (according to some of the educational staff)."
"Numerous youths and staff complained that some of the teachers are not conducting classroom management except to refer youths to Security. Some of the instances noted were referral for cursing, not being in the right place because the youth was by the door, and not working." According to school staff meeting minutes, the Principal believed "there have been too many referrals to security which are minor and no interventions are being provided. Everyone needs to start utilizing the focus room and any other intervention possible before sending a student to the Security Unit."
It should be noted, Evins has long been a problem child for the agency and these sorts of allegations are not new there. For whatever reason, in the time I've observed the agency and its predecessor, it's never been run as professionally as the other four remaining TJJD units.
Several senators, most prominently Sen. Dan Patrick, expressed concern that TJJD classification procedures weren't sufficient to keep very young inmates away from older, more dangerous ones. Patrick was concerned that the sort of bullying of staff by older inmates witnessed by the Ombudsman at Evins might also be victimizing younger inmates. He seemed passionate about the question and it was a fair point.
By statute, youth can't be housed with others who are more than three years apart in age, but there are moments during the day when they may still come into contact, particularly in educational settings where older youth may be in classrooms just a few doors down from younger ones, the committee was told. That's partly a function of moving from 14 to five units in a short span of time, cramming inmates of varying ages into just a handful of units. The 80% reduction in inmate numbers helped the problem somewhat, but it would be easier to segregate the youngest ones if TJJD operated smaller, regional units instead of larger, rural ones.
Regrettably, Griffiths told the committee, there are still counties sending 10-11 year olds to TJJD despite the 2007 reforms creating disincentives to do so. One thought occurred to me: Perhaps that's a good argument for increasing the minimum age at which counties can send youth to secure state lockups from the current 10 years old to, say, 13 or 14. Most counties already are dealing with those very young offenders on their own and it wouldn't be a great burden to just make it a requirement instead of a strong suggestion that the rest of them do so.
In all, my takeaway from the hearing was somewhat different from the Chairman's pessimistic conclusion that the agency is inherently "broken." The whole thing made me think back to the "blue ribbon panel" created in 2007 to make recommendations (pdf) on TYC reforms. From Tuesday's hearing, it sounds like where the Lege followed that panel's recommendations - such as keeping more juvenile offenders at the county level and reducing both the number of secure state facilities and the number of youth housed there - the reforms have been a success. The problems haven't all gone away but the oversight mechanisms seem to be catching more of them and staff are being held accountable to a greater extent than in the past. By contrast, where the Lege failed to follow the blue ribbon panel's recommendations - e.g., continuing to house youth inmates at larger, antiquated facilities instead of moving to smaller, regional units closer to the urban areas from whence the youth mainly come - significant problems remain.
Making some of those still-needed changes will likely cost more money, not less, so focusing on minimizing per-inmate cost in the short run probably isn't helpful. Anyway, the reforms keeping more offenders at the county level have coincided with a sustained drop in juvenile crime. So even if per-inmate costs are higher, overall costs to the state both for incarceration and from the cost of crime itself to the public are markedly less. In the end, the success or failure of the agency should be judged based on public safety, not cost-per-inmate, and on that score things look a lot better in 2014 than they did back in 2007, even if they still have a long way to go.