Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sunset Testimony: Merger ignores underlying TYC trends, biggest barriers to improvement

The Sunset Commission will accept written comments about the proposed merger between TYC and TJPC and other subjects addressed in the Sunset report through 5 p.m. on Friday. You can send public comments to

I told Sunset Commission Chairman Carl Isett I would encapsulate my oral testimony from Monday's Dec. 15 public hearing into written form and submit it this week, and state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa suggested that when I did, I should post it on the blog, so here it is, expanded from several prior Grits posts:

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Simply merging the Youth Commission and Juvenile Probation Commission won't solve the myriad problems described by Sunset staff facing Texas youth prisons and might result in negative, unintended consequences.

Merger Ignores Biggest Problems

To the extent a merger is done with an eye toward reducing expenditures, it could actually make matters worse because most of the major problems identified by Sunset staff - inadequate mental health treatment, lack of special ed instruction, oversized facilities, etc. - require more resources, not less, to solve. Cost savings predictions also ignore the need for investment in other areas like public schools and healthcare that affect juvenile justice.

Why Not Embrace Blue Ribbon Panel Suggestions?

Sunset staff (who are government efficiency wonks, not juvenile justice experts) failed to advocate a shift to smaller, Missouri-style facilities or a rehabilitation model that conforms to widely acknowledged best practices aimed at reducing recidivism. The gubernatorial Blue Ribbon Panel's detailed suggestion (pdf) in 2007 for reforming TYC along these lines was sadly defenestrated by the adult-prison transplants who were running the agency at the time and was never revived.

Given my druthers, I'd prefer the Sunset Commission had revisited and drawn more heavily from those Blue Ribbon Panel suggestions - they're proposing to take the agency in a different direction than the one suggested by most juvie specialists.

Merging Parole with Counties Makes Sense

There is one area where I agree a merger is justified: TYC's parole services should be managed by county probation departments to create more seamless reentry networks and to ensure that locals are engaged with the kids from their community throughout the process. Reentry after leaving TYC is difficult and local probation offices have more resources and connections to help youth succeed. TYC already contracts for parole services with more than 30 counties, so there's an existing model for how this could work that's transferrable to other jurisdictions.

Beware Unfunded Mandates for Counties

The Sunset report downplayed too much (IMO) the financial impact of downsizing TYC on counties at a time when the Legislative Budget Board says youth inmate populations will be rising. There's a pilot grant program suggested to reimburse counties for costs, but it appears underfunded and speculative whereas if more TYC kids must be handled by counties, those costs will be specific and concrete.

Likely most counties would seek to identify private residential placements to manage these offenders, but the truth is there simply isn't enough private capacity out there right now to pick up the slack if LBB's inmate population projections hold. The Sunset report and the LBB projections, as far as I can tell, cannot be mutually justified - something's got to give.

From the data in Sunset's financial analysis, I'm convinced a merger cannot save the state money, as the report predicts. There are just too many questionable assumptions that will not bear out upon implementation.

Overstating Savings from Facilities Closure

The only absolute, for-sure savings is around $600,000 annually from eliminating five duplicative executive slots. But the rest of the projected annual savings - $27.6 million - is entirely speculative. It's based on the assumption the agency will close three facilities and lay off 587 workers, as well as "reducing TYC central office salaries by 10%."

However, the recommendation ignores the fact that TYC has already recently closed three facilities – San Saba, Marlin, and the Sheffield Boot Camp - and two others were de-funded by the Legislature and are currently paid for from “savings” due to understaffing at other units. Thus there would be no savings from the closures compared to TYC's current budget. Plus, the proposal comes at a time when TYC's inmate population is rising. According to the agency's response to the Sunset Commission

The Legislature appropriated funding for an average daily population of 2,292 in institutions. Currently, institutional populations are 7.8% under that number, while the population is projected to increase. If the three facilities identified in the Sunset report were closed, the agency would have insufficient capacity for serving the projected population.

The Sunset report categorizes the 587 layoffs as a loose guesstimate and said savings could be "up to" that amount, implying they could also be, perhaps substantially less. After all, we're reminded later in the report, it was only in 2007 the Legislature added 516 new staff slots at TYC (p. 64) because the agency was understaffed and otherwise couldn't meet its statutorily required 12-1 staffing ratio.

Plan for Inmate Population Increases

Since that time, the number of youth in TYC declined to half the number where the agency maxxed out just a few years ago, so apparently the Sunset Commission believes that means the new staff aren't needed. But nowhere in the detailed footnotes to the section on the merger do we find any reference to the Legislative Budget Board projections that tell us to expect the state's youth prison population to rise again until the agency is 23% above capacity by 2012. If that happens, the idea of slashing 587 employees (two years after adding 516) will begin to look extremely short-sighted.

Also, the Sunset report assumes fewer youth will go to TYC and instead be handled by local probation departments. Without assessing those costs with any specificity, the report insists that "This initial amount could be drawn from TYC's previous budget and could be supplemented with lapsed TYC funds, if available," adding that as a last resort the Department could "request additional startup funding from the Legislature."

That's the part that keeps tripping me up. It seems obvious that private placement handled by dozens of counties will be a more expensive proposition than when those kids are all handled by a single state agency. But the Sunset report assumes such a switch would save money. I don't think that's true.

LBB Projections Ignored

Sunset failed to base its analysis supporting facility closures on the Legislative Budget Board's official projections regarding youth crime and incarceration in their five year population estimates (pdf), which are used to set agency budgets.

In 2007 the Legislature took steps aimed at reducing inmate populations at the Texas Youth Commission, including shifting 19-20 year olds to TDCJ and refusing to take misdemeanants at state youth prisons. The population drop can be seen most dramatically in the number of releases. TYC released 4,375 inmates during fiscal year 2007, up from 3,554 in fy 2006. By comparison, the number of new inmates entering TYC decreased from 3,462 in fy 2006 to 2,994 in fy 2007 and an estimated 2,090 in 2008 (based on the monthly rate for the first seven months). LBB predicts the new level of intakes will hold steady at 2,090 over the next five years.

Those declines mainly represent implementation of a new law disallowing judges from sending misdemeanants to TYC, sending 19 and 20 year olds to TDCJ, reduced lengths of stay, and reduced numbers from a handful of counties that essentially quit sending kids to the agency. Indeed, the reduced numbers have allowed TYC to meet minimum staffing requirements for the first time in years.

More Changes Needed to Keep Inmate Numbers Down

TYC's reduced inmate population at first seemed like it might be sustainable, particularly given that juvie crime is declining overall. The Sunset report notes that the "Texas juvenile arrest rate decreased between calendar years 2005 and 2006 (1.3 percent) following a decrease between calendar years 2004 and 2005 (8.3 percent)." Not only are arrests down, says LBB, Texas' overall juvie population is growing at a slower rate than in the past.

Even so, TYC's reduced inmate population will be shortlived unless more is done to reform the system. Today TYC operates at 6.5% below maximum capacity, and will slightly exceed max capacity in FY 2009, says LBB. But it's what happens after that which made me sit up and take notice. LBB predicts TYC's inmate population will resume fairly rapid growth in the near term, rising to 13.5% above apacity by 2010 and shooting up to 23.3% above capacity in 2012.

The worst possible outcome would be to dump a bunch of the worst-behaved kids in the state on county probation departments who're ill-equipped to handle them and then fail to provide adequate resources. If this merger is going to happen, the plan must accommodate these new inmates instead of pretend they're just not coming. Downsizing TYC cannot result in a blatant, unfunded mandate for counties.

So the situation is this: Juvie crime is declining but total commitments to TYC will increase by about a quarter over the next four years as the agency's inmate population creeps back up toward their previous, higher levels. By contrast, LBB projects the increase in Texas' juvie probation population will be de minimus over the same period, with the number of juvie probationers overall expanding just .03% annually.These are not arguments for downsizing.

That said, the adult system predicted massive overcrowding just a couple of years ago, but reforms implemented by Rep. Madden, Sen. Whitmire and their colleagues staved off that increase for the foreseeable future by expanding treatment and diversion programs. The Legislature could do the same for TYC by beefing up diversion resources at counties, perhaps through the pilot grant program Sunset proposed. But unless such changes are enacted, merging and downsizing TYC seems premature and likely to renew the type of chronic overcrowding problems the agency has only recently overcome.

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See related Grits posts:

SEE ALSO: The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's written response to the Sunset Staff Report and TYC's official agency response.


Anonymous said...

That's a good analysis you did, Scott.

The bottom line is that there is no cheap way to solve juvenile justice problems. It is, and has always been a "pay me now, or pay me later" situation. In order for the system to work, there has to be a coordinated system of prevention, community services, and progressive sanctions both within and outside of TYC.

Anonymous said...

What ever happens, the counties will need increase funding. There are more resources out there, but the cost is prohibited with the current funding. Small to medium juvenile probation departments suffer the most. Staffing is crucial along with paying salaries to get good people to apply for the thankless jobs they do.

Bottom line, funding is the solution to all things. With money we can do more. Should the funding be reduced or status quo, then nothing is going to change. The taxpayer is going to have to make a painful decision, save our kids or let the future be uncertain for all. No matter what happens, the cost of caring for these kids is not any cheaper then raising a kid at home. Reflect on what it cost to raise your kid today and then add a treatment program or two to it.

Anonymous said...

Well said Grits. What I gleaned from the hearing is how can we afford what we need to do while feeding the hungry tyc machine. I think the more the public is made aware of our 120 year old state run prison prep school system the more private funds can be raised for private groups of concerned citizens to help redirect some of these kids to the positive after being released from tyc. IMO, Helping former tyc kids “break norms” and be productive citizens who raise productive citizens, is a good cause.
Sheldon tyc 47333 c/s

rage said...

Grits, you're gonna' hurt your head beating it against a wall like that.

Anonymous said...

If I hear or read the word "seamless" again, I'm gonna hurt somebody, bad!


Anonymous said...

You may hurt yourself....go scratch yours.

Anonymous said...


Sorry, I just couldn't help it.

Anonymous said...

Don't say more funding...that could not possibly be the problem...

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

More money would make the corruption, malfeaseance and stupidity, seem ALMOST seamless.

Anonymous said...

Why does everyone focus on TYC. If you want to keep kids out of TYC then keep them out of the juvenile justice system altogether. Most of the kids in trouble have mental health issues. Our MHMR system in Texas SUCKS. Close down the rural TYC facilities and give that money to counties so they can provide services to the kids in the county system and/or to kids BEFORE they commit a crime. Prevention is better than incarceration.

Anonymous said... deserve a pay raise. Someone who actually knows whats needed, for a change. Surely, you don't work for TYC.

Anonymous said...

12:10 - you are showing your bias. I do work for TYC and I agree with 7:04

Anonymous said...

I am 7:04 and I work for probation department. We are the dumping ground for kids with mental health issues. The Children's Defense Fund Cradle to Prison Pipeline forum on 11/20 stated "7-11% of juvenile age population in texas has a mental health issue but over 75% of kids in juvenile justice system have mental health issues. There is such a lack of mental health services that families can access that if we had prevention services in place we might divert them from the system altogether. It cost $68,000 + to house 1 juvenile at TYC. That would pay the salary of a master's level therapist that can potentially counsel hundreds of kids a year. I know of 1 senator that is listening.

Anonymous said...

Right on 704. TYC should be forced to refund to the state the millions of dollars they have wasted on non-treatment/wasterful, dumb projects...over the last ten years. The recidivist rate proves TYC is and has been a failure for at least ten years. The only ones who have improved over these years, is TYC top management and lower level mismanagement.

Anonymous said...

7:04, I agree.Too many kids go to TYC and for that matter a county lock-up facility because their parents can't control them. I worked for CPS for many years in Houston and if they didn't end up in foster care they went to juvenile. Our mental health system needs a overhaul. Sounds like probation needs the money to use on kids to keep them out of lock down.

Anonymous said...

704 as director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Anonymous said...

I worked for CPS, and left them in disgust and went to work for TYC. I would estimate that 90% of the kids in TYC are CPS failures. I am not blaming the overworked CPS workers, either. People keep complaining about money - but it is all about money. We in Texas do not want to spend money on troubled kids. Prevention programs cost money up front, but, wake up people, they save money in the long run.

God bless the dedicated workers in CPS and TYC who scramble like the little Dutch kid putting their fingers in the dike trying desperately to stem the flow. God bless the lost kids who they are trying to save. Old Salty

Anonymous said...

Old Salty and 704 you guys have the wisdom most of the others don't have. Please speak up and help TYC, TJPC, MHMR and CPS. I am being serious, not sarcastic. 704 hits on a note that every department faces, what to do with the lost kids with mental health problems. I too attended the forum and Ms. Best hit a note with her presentation. I hope the Senator you refer to is Whitmire. We need more forward thinking professionals in the field, people who can save the kids up front, not after they get to TYC. I agree, 704 for director, old Salty as assistant director. Get rid of "status quo".

Anonymous said...

704, you got my vote. We need someone at TJPC who can think in a manner that will prevent kids from getting into the system, not reacting when they do. So, how bout it?

Anonymous said...

704 you need to give this info to Sunset.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with what 704 posted, but let's not act as though he or she is the only person that's ever thought of this angle. It's been said over and over for many years by plenty of professionals working in their respective systems that services juvenile offenders.

The problem is that the legislature (especially while controlled by the Republicans) isn't interested in funding the front end of any social services (MHMR, CPS, Juvenile Probation, etc.) The next time you have the opportunity to make a choice at the voting booth, pick the candidate that is committed to funding those programs rather than making vote-getting promises of cutting taxes and "getting tough" on crime. Because, what we’re all discussing here is this is the result of those particular politician’s legislative agendas. Politicians that spout off about getting tough on crime aren’t talking about prevention and early intervention. They’re talking about locking people up. So, why would you think they are going support anything else?

If you (the general you) want funding for the front end, to prevent children from ever entering the juvenile system, then you have to make sure your politicians represent what you are preaching. You can't vote for those good old boys that want to "get tough" on all those horrible, scary juvenile offenders. Those are the guys that make sure that facilities are being built in their rural communities, so there are jobs for their constituents. However, what’s the use of building those facilities (that are nicely named after some politician, or local judge) unless they get filled. Right? How else are they going to get filled? Certainly not by juveniles that have had the benefit of early intervention and prevention programs. Not by juveniles that are afforded the services they need when the problems are first identified at an early age. No. Their problems are ignored until it get so bad that you have a 15 year old wearing orange or blue detention clothing with ankle shackles, standing in front of a juvenile judge. There’s a crowd of people (probation officer, maybe a CPS worker (most likely not), parent(s), defense attorney and a prosecutor. Everyone’s talking about all the efforts and services that have been thrown at this juvenile delinquent. We’ve tried substance abuse treatment, MHMR services, or maybe they’ve been lucky to have Family Preservation. But, here’s juvenile PID # ______, and the judge is shaking his/her head wondering why it didn’t work.

The answer is easy. It’s because it all started way too late.

Anonymous said...

This is revisiting mental health posts from over a year ago. Prevention is important but it will not solve the problems of TYC. There will still be youth in TYC, we will still have to figure out what/how to deal with them...

We should all not forget that Texas consistently ranks among the lowest in mental health and social services, and is the highest in incarceration. Texans don't believe in it and don't care who is locked up.

Anonymous said...

I agree with 704 and 737 but I don't think it is too late. If this merger is pulled off it can be a new start to juvenile services. Watching the hearings Charman Isett and Vice Chair Hegar really seem to care about what happens in this state. Hinojosa is passionate about his bill working and I think it can but we need to address the big picture, not just TYC and TJPC.

Anonymous said...

TYC is now in a new crisis. We have had a large amount of extra paperwork dumped on us in the last few months. Tying us down with more paperwork is supposed to help things? Whose idea was that?

Anonymous said...

Don't you remember when they said that Conextions was going to have less paperwork?

Anonymous said...

When did this become about how overworked you are? Get real. What has become of TYC? JCO VIs who are never on their dorms, and caseworkers who sit around complaining to each other about their paperwork. What about the kids? Oh, yeah, TYC would be a great place to work if we didn't have to deal with kids!

Anonymous said...

Go 820...are you from West Texas? They only have 80 youth and still bitch about being overworked.

Anonymous said...

Nope, Al Price; but I hear it is the same or worse at Evins, Crockett, & Gainesville.

Anonymous said...

How Evins survives is beyond all. With the administrators and most employees involved in drugs, how can it go on? Crockett, WTSS, Gainsville and Vernon need to just close the doors. Keep perhaps three for the worst youth and get rid of the other facilities; bad apples, youth and employees. Brownwood and Giddings are the players pets and will continue with all their corruption.

Anonymous said...

Yep, it's true, the mad rush to get staff has resulting in a type of welfare program. Too bad, for there are many, many hard-working and dedicated staff at all the facilities who have stuck with it through thick and thin.

Anonymous said...

I might add - even at Evins!

Anonymous said...

Has anyone noticed that most crap flows south? It appears to all be ending up at Evins, our sanctuary of abuse of the south.

Anonymous said...

Brownwood and Giddings Corruption?