Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Overreaction: Don't ban every felon from TYC employment

I don't normally pay close attention to public education policy, but I was interested to see that Sen. Florence Shapiro has passed a bill through the Senate yesterday that would require fingerprinting and criminal background checks of all public school employees and ban those who had committed sexual offenses or crimes against children ("Senate OKs criminal checks for school staff," March 27). The total cost will be $34 million.

Her definition of crimes against children includes both felonies and misdemeanors, but would still allow employment of many people with a felony record or other past crimes.

By contrast, Special Master Jay Kimbrough has (without any apparent authority) declared a much stricter policy at the Texas Youth Commission. There, unlike in the schools, Kimbrough says no one should be employed if they've been convicted of a felony of any sort in their lifetime. (Remember, first offense posession of less than a gram of cocaine is a felony in Texas, as is a third offense DWI.) Here's how Lisa Sandberg recently described Kimbrough's stance in the SA Express News ("Woes mount for troubled TYC," March 10):
The agency has allowed felons — possibly including murderers — to work with troubled juveniles as long as one of the agency's two top officials authorized it.

And those hired under the agency's 51/2-year-old policy could easily keep their backgrounds secret from the juveniles they supervised or the folks they worked with: State law requires any new TYC employee's criminal record be destroyed.

"I am past stunned," said Jay Kimbrough, the special master appointed last week to oversee the investigation of the agency's sex abuse scandal. "I don't have sufficient vocabulary to describe this. ... Goodness knows where this came from."

Kimbrough offered the public this assurance: As of this week, felons would no longer be granted the "specific authorization" needed for a TYC job.

"That's not happening," Kimbrough said, adding that the three-page Personnel Policy and Procedure Manual could not be summarily changed.
Kimbrough may not know where that came from, but I do - TYC can't find enough JCOs to staff its youth prisons. (The truth is, nobody else can find prison guards, either.) They're desperate because the failure to hire enough staff puts JCOs and kids in danger and ruthlessly exacerbates all the problems now surfacing at the agency. Turnover at some facilities exceeds 50% annually - after all, they're all in small towns out in the boondocks and don't pay very well.

Meanwhile, about one in eleven Texas adults have a felony conviction, and these folks are excluded from many jobs, making them willing to take the low pay, pitiful training, and dangerous, crappy job conditions that come with being a CO at a youth prison.

(Another aside, the reason at this point that the offending policy cannot be summarily changed, as Kimbrough put it, is because TYC's board by law sets policies and it doesn't have one anymore! Oops.)

Honestly, I've known quite a few reformed convicts who would make good JCOs - for many I think it'd be fine, particularly after some cooling off period, say, 5 or 10 years after they're "off paper" or when the sentence is finally complete. One Grits commenter feared he would lose his long-time job at TYC because of a felony conviction from 1972! It'd be absurd to get rid of such an employee. At least such a person would a) be an adult, and b) be less likely to take some kid's BS than a green, 18-year old newbie. Who knows? Perhaps such a person's reflection on their own youthful indiscretions could provide wisdom fruitfully shared with young offenders? For some, that would certainly be true.

Perhapas a better approach lies in HB 3521, heard yesterday in House Corrections. That bill takes the same approach to TYC as Shapiro takes to the schools - banning employees who committed crimes against children, but not all felons. Like a school board, TYC's board (when it finally has one again) is free to set stricter policies as the labor market allows. That's a more flexible, compromise solution that wouldn't disrupt long-time staffing (what little there is) and would allow TYC to have at least a remote chance of filling currently vacant positions.

UPDATE: Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman reports that it may not be legal to fire felons employed at TYC, which would mean terminating dozens of people.


billt said...

Dang! One in eleven Texans is a convicted felon...Hey Grits, is that in prison, or both in AND out of prison? What's your source of that statistic? With that many, you'd think employers would be more willing to give an ex-felon a chance. My experience is they aren't. I've been out 3 months and STILL can't find a job, not even something mowing yards or scrubbing toilets. Maybe I'm looking for work in all the wrong places (sorry 'bout that Mickey).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The one in eleven adults number is all inclusive - in prison, out of prison, on and off paper. Everybody every convicted.

Pretty outrageous, huh?

Anonymous said...

soooo, If someone was convicted in say 1968 of having a bag of weed (felony), served their PROBATED term out satisfactory, they should not be allowed a job with TYC?? WHY IS THAT IDIOT BEING ALLOWED TO WRITE POLICY IN OUR STATE CAPITAL?