Wednesday, October 01, 2008

TYC history repeats itself - possibly at 10 a.m. this morning

With the joint Texas House-Senate committee on oversight for the Texas Youth Commission meeting this morning at 10 a.m., it was timely for Texas A&M San Antonio Prof. Bill Bush, a regular Grits commenter and historian who's writing a book on the Texas Youth Commission, to publish the first installment (pdf) of a history of the agency in collaboration with our friends at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

(Those interested in the TYC hearing can go here for the live feed - scroll down past the very important item "to Study the Practice of Breeding White-Tailed and Mule Deer")

In the introduction, Bush returns to a theme he's repeated often in reaction to various reforms by the agency and the Legislature in discussions here on Grits:
juvenile justice agencies and policymakers have often repeated past mistakes - almost verbatim. Consensus among juvenile justice practitioners and experts had held since at least the 1940s that juveniles are best rehabilitated by individualized care, delivered close to their families and communities. However, this approach rarely has been put into practice, largely due to perceived costs, which suggests a third lesson: juvenile justice requires sustained support, resource investment, and vision. Many of the worst abuse scandals and missteps have stemmed from meager budgets, and the inadequate services, poorly trained employees, and unqualified administrators that result.

These perpetual problems have been repeatedly unearthed by the press, only to be reburied again once the public's anger has passed.
Lots of good stuff in Bush's report. For example, how many TYC employees knew they owed their jobs thanks to do-gooder activism from the Texas chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union in the 1880s?And who is surprised that even then rural communities bid to subsidize youth prison construction because they were "eager for the anticipated jobs"?

Equally familiar were claims by employees and their legislative champions that a reform statute passed in 1947 "would result in the inmates 'taking over' the institutions." They didn't, of course, but we've seen the same ridiculous claim made in response to virtually every proposed reform over the last year in dozens of Grits' comment strings.

I didn't know that the practice of "indeterminate sentencing" dates all the way back to 1913. Or that TYC's then-lone facility in Gatesville was under control of the adult prison system until 1909. Certainly the accounts of segregated TYC units for blacks and the rise of separate girls' facilities was all new to me, too. Bush details the juvenile side of the important cycle of prison reforms in the 1920s, spearheaded again by women's temperance and Christian groups (like the YWCA), whose efforts ultimately ended the practice of using youth prison labor as contractors for private businesses.

I'm looking forward to reading the full thing more carefully when I get the chance and may have more to say about it then. Certainly the TYC saga already has provided plenty of fodder over the last year and a half for Bush's 'history repeats itself' theme, so I'm equally looking forward to future installments of this multi-part history.


Anonymous said...

Grits, thanks for the shout out. I do hope readers here will give it a look, even though it is a highly abbreviated version of my book, which should be coming out next spring.

FWIW, I'm happy to answer questions about it on this thread.

It's funny, a mantra for historians is that the "history repeats itself" framework is to be avoided at all costs, that it constitutes one of the worst errors one can make, for a variety of reasons.

I've never found this maxim harder to avoid than in this case, though.

One small correction: I teach at Texas A&M-San Antonio, not UTSA...:)

Bill Bush

Anonymous said...

Whoops, meant to say "harder to follow"... BB

Anonymous said...

Those interested in the TYC hearing can go here for the live feed - scroll down past the very important item "to Study the Practice of Breeding White-Tailed and Mule Deer")

I hope Witmire and Madden don't confuse the two meetings!

Anonymous said...

First observation: If juvenile probation's projected populations are leveling off, but yet TYC's projections are increasing, then are judges starting to direct commit and handing down felonies? Any stats on that?

Anonymous said...

Dutton asked a good question regarding follow up mental health treatment upon release and how that relates to kids being revoked. The answer is that referrals are made, but the majority that come back return with having only attended maybe one session if at all. We don't have much control to force them to go when they're in the community. This is when they really screw up, commit a new crime, or start failing to report and thus get revoked. Good question though.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, Bill - I corrected your affiliation.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

On the increases, 10:20, what's happening is they project the same intake every year - 2090 kids - but with Lengths of Stay at 14 months or so, that means over time you have more kids en toto so the numbers rise.

Anonymous said...

Are those 2090 kids all new commitments or does that number include those who have been revoked?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

As I understand it the 2090 is total annual projected intake, including revocations. Here's the document (pdf) so you can doublecheck for yourself.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Prof. Bush, for the paper. Very informative history. Illustrating de Tocqueville's belief stated at the beginning of The Old Regime and the Revolution: “I am convinced that, despite themselves, they retained from the old regime most of the feelings, habits, and even ideas which helped them make the Revolution that destroyed it. Unintentionally, they used the debris of the old regime to construct the framework of their new society.”

Anonymous said...

Mr Bush and Grits, I guess where I am bumping my head is that it is obvious that the past and present hold horrible stories and lack of progression for the youth correction and that even in the 1913, 1920's sex abuse, indeterminate sentencing and other horrible inflictions have been bestowed upon the youth and therefore bleeding over to the adults and there fore bleeding to their children and their childrens children and where is the logic in the continuance of discussion when the hurt and harm have been so embeded in the judical system? It is almost where I as a taxpayer start to pray that there is a riot of disturbance to yield some change. I do understand many people here in this country feel that if someone is incarcerated they deserve whatever happens in there...but where the harm is, is that there are children, there are innocent people and the just system is a far cry from just, fair and without racial seems most of the true convicts and felons are those wearing the suits and polishing over the laws to allow the abuse and harm to continue so my true question is...why keep talking and no action?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments.

8:11, you've nailed one of the founding flaws of juvenile justice at its outset: the attempt to overlay a juvenile system over an existing adult correctional structure. While the two systems share some similarities, they have important differences in terms of their stated goals and the populations they deal with.

I would argue that this "overlay" phenomenon obtained not only with physical structures such as Gatesville but also in terms of the general mindset of many (but not all) of the pols, the employees, and the public.

That is, they did not strive to think of the problem differently, only to tweak existing attitudes around the edges.

Toward 8:07's comment, the result of this "overlay" problem was not only abuses of youth (many of whom were not charged with criminal offenses), but also a failure on the public safety front.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that as many as half of all adult inmates in this early period had spent significant time in Gatesville.

Bill Bush

Anonymous said...

"We patch and tinker more than we renew," as William James said.

This from Raymond Geuss:

“History is a continuing series of transformations in which the old is not simply obliterated and utterly deleted, but is taken up and preserved in a modified form. Even a political regime in the modern world that takes itself to be utterly radical, an absolute new start in human history, must, if it is to survive at all, take over an existing health care system, educational institutions, penal practices, and a legal code. In a situation like this the new regime will try to impress its own set of goals on the whole existing social structure. However the social structure at any given time is not a tabula rasa with no internal structure or powers of resistance; there will be existing forces in place – existing buildings that structure and constrain the kinds of interactions which can take place within them, people who have been trained in certain techniques, habits of behavior that are rooted in the past – and the project of those in power will be to enlist the existing social energies and redirect them to what are construed as the 'correct' ends. History is best seen as the struggle between such historically embodied forces and the attempts to redirect them – between nurses on the hospital wards and the commissars, the prison guards and reformers, teachers and government inspectors, and so on. These struggles, and the semantic, conceptual, evaluative, and material elements that were the vehicles through which they were carried on, leave traces in the present. The outcome of such struggles is a matter not of a 'logic' of any kind but of brute fact – of the actual strength and skill of particular existing persons and groups, and of the contingently existing circumstances in which they confront each other. The living past is overwhelmingly a realm of gross historical contingency. Any significant human phenomenon that has succeeded in maintaining itself throughout a long history into the present, then, can be expected to be a highly stratified composite whose parts derive originally from different periods. The original rationale of each of these parts will have been oriented to a completely different (past) context of action. Finally, the particular configuration from which those parts have come to stand to one another will have been deeply determined by the historical play of force from which the phenomenon has arisen.” (preface to Public Goods / Private Goods, 2005)

“The basic model for understanding history,” Geuss says in another work, “is the transformation of pre-existing social institutions like the hospital system, the educational system, the state, or the penal system when a new revolutionary government comes to power. . . . Such revolutionary processes are epistemically enlightening not because all of history is a series of revolutions or because only revolutionary change is important, but because in such revolutions one can see in a particularly condensed, accelerated and self-conscious visible way the kind of thing which is happening less visibly, intensely, and quickly in all of history.” (History and Illusion in Politics, 2001)

What kind of thing? How about, "History does not repeat, it recycles."