Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This will go in your permanent file: Appropriations considers juvie corrections

This morning I attended a joint meeting of the TX House Appropriations Criminal Justice Subcommittee and the House Corrections Committee, on the assumption that with a tight budget season in front of us, it'd be good to get a lay of the land on juvenile justice budgdets and in particular diversion and probation programming which were the main topic of discussion.  Here are a few highlights from my admittedly sketchy notes and a few accumulated documents:

Better decisions by counties
Diversion programs were widely credited - along with a handful of key policy changes like removing 19-20 year-olds and disallowing commitment of misdemeanants - with dramatically reducing the inmate population at Texas youth prisons by more than 2/3 from their maximum just a few scant years ago. This is happening not because the state wholesale released kids, but because counties found other ways to deal with them on the front end, in large part thanks to new grants approved by the Lege beginning in 2007, according to testimony.

By the time they were fully rolled out, statewide commitments to TYC declined 35% from 2008 to 2010, from 1,693 to 1,107, according to materials distributed to the committee by Juvenile Probation Commission chief Vicki Spriggs. The number of youth in secure Youth Commission lockdown facilities has declined to 1,521, said TYC head Cherie Townsend, down from a max of more than 5,500 just a few years ago, all during a period when juvenile crime has significantly declined, following national trends.

There are 18,000 out of 52,000 youth presently on probation in Texas, said Spriggs, who in theory would have been eligible for commitment to TYC (because they committed a felony), but local judges and probation departments are making different decisions now than a few years ago, in large part she said because diversion funds have given courts more options and different incentives than they faced in the past.

The conundrum of reform via 'Riders'
Spriggs raised a legitimate concern that, because of the the Legislature's hodge-podge, "rider"-driven funding process (riders are basically amendments to the budget directing how money should be spent), where new layers of bureaucratic complexity are inevitably tacked onto every new funding stream located, TJPC today distrbutes funding through 18 different grant streams, which multiplies the amount of reporting by agencies pointlessly. Everyone would be better served, she argued, if the money could be distributed through a single funding stream.

However, state Rep. Jerry Madden pointed out that in some cases different federal funding sources required separate accounting. He could have also added that the Lege has used incentive-based grants in recent years in both the adult and juvenile systems to influence local policy on issues - like actually using diversion programs the Lege created - in ways that spurred the beginning of a positive cultural change in Texas juvenile probation departments. That structure shouldn't be dismantled without ensuring similar incentives remain in place in some meaningful form.

Big reduction in Bexar commitments
Bexar County juvenile probation chief David Riley said his department had used $1.5 million in diversion grant funds to reduce by 42% the number of youth they sent to TYC. Juveniles treated under that funding stream cost the state $2,600 per year, he said (compared to $99K for the Texas Youth Commission). Two juvenile probation directors from smaller counties - Guadalupe and Brown - said they outsourced most of the services for kids they would have sent to TYC. James Williams of Brown County said they sent kids who needed drug treatment to Dallas.

How can I miss you if you won't go away?
I'd forgotten until Chairman McReynolds mentioned it that both TYC and TJPC are up for Sunset review again next session, as if there's not enough going on with the budget crunch.

Big Brother for little convicts
Lisa Capers of TJPC explained the new "Juvenile Case Management System," which is almost a Total Information Awareness system for juvenile offenders age 10-17, connecting "legacy" databases from dozens of local juvenile probation departments and potentially many other sources. Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, while acknowledging the potential benefits, rightly warned of potential privacy dangers, asking "Who owns the record?" The county that inputted it, came the unsatisfactory answer. Clearly nobody was saying the youth or their families would have access to records about themselves, nor was there discussed any process of review when the JCMS contains errors, either at the hearing or in the material from TJPC on the database given to legislators.

Currently counties report data monthly, but under the JCMS system data (including any errors) will be uploaded in real time. The state funded this in conjunction with Dallas, Bexar and Tarrant Counties, Don Lee of the Conference of Urban Counties told the subcommittee, so they could offer a "basic" account for free to all counties with a deluxe, data-laden subscription account for those who wanted to pay for it. (Be the first cool kid in your school to get the new gadget, Mr. Probation Director!) Kolkhorst asked what rules would apply to taking data out of the system, expungements, etc., and was told TJPC would comply with current law. The Brenham lawmaker seemed dissatisfied with that answer, and so was I.

Public testimony: Cut smart, spend smart
Public testimony before the committee included moving pleas from mothers of kids with mental illness inside TYC who came to ask legislators to keep their kids safe and provide educational opportunities commensurate with the students' varied abilities. (News-8 Austin spoke with one of the mothers in their coverage of the hearing.) Marc Levin from the Texas Public Policy Foundation provided written testimony (for which I'm hoping he'll soon send a promised link!) detailing strategies from other states the Lege could emulate.

I couldn't resist breaking the fourth wall and putting in a witness form to give public testimony, in part to emphasize Rep. Kolkhorst's point about making sure firm privacy restrictions remain in place on the new statewide juvie information system. When I was in school, I recalled, we used to joke about teachers who would threaten ominously that this or that transgression would become part of our "Permanent File." But now it's no joke, TJPC is actually creating that "Permanent File." I haven't thought through all the implications of TJPC's database, I said, and I agree I can see many upsides to sharing information across jurisdictional boundaries. But there is also a dark side to the idea, and legislators seemingly funded the plan without fully thinking through the implications. Information wants to be free, I reminded them, and once the data exist, many people you never thought of will want it for (all seemingly legitimate) reasons no one has even considered yet.

Mainly, though, I lamented that mental health services and other supports for troubled youth were delivered almost exclusively through the criminal justice system. Providing them more liberally on the front end, I argued - particularly regarding early childhood education and mental health services - would likely prevent crime and help kids before they became antisocial or disruptive. To get the most crime-fighting bang for the buck, prisons aren't nearly as good an investment as targeting services for kids with incarcerated parents, hopefully equipping them and their caregivers with extra tools to help them succeed despite the harsh setbacks life has dealt them, at least making the effort to break generational cycles of crime.

Shifting gears, I turned to a theme raised repeatedly on Grits: That the state's recent experience with TYC - slashing the number of inmates while preserving public safety by beefing up community based programming - provided exactly the model budgetmakers should be looking at to cut Texas' adult corrections budget. Close 6-8 prisons, even more if the right policy changes are adopted, and spend a portion of the savings to expand community corrections' budgets to handle the extra load. Legislators have already seen it work on the juvenile front, and to the extent they've tentatively stepped down that road on the adult side, they've seen nothing but widespread success. In the face of a yawning budget gap, it's time to think about the unthinkable.

Here's a link to the full hearing, for those interested, and initial coverage from the Texas Tribune, the Dallas News and News-8 Austin.


Anonymous said...

When the DPS Juvenile Justice Information System (JJIS) was started it was for statistical purposes. Fast forward 15 years, and many children who successfully complete their stint in the Juvenile Justice system are denied jobs that require state license or certificate,(and even jobs that don't), because of the "statistical" database. The Lege may be told that the county "owns" the file. But who owns the computer it will be stored on?

Anonymous said...

Hell, Grits, everything was going very well 'till you got up there.


Anonymous said...

How was TYC's population reduced? Lots of those 19-21 year olds in TYC were sent off to prison. Many of them were a very rough bunch who pretty much controlled their hood before coming to TYC.

Anonymous said...

Scott: On behalf of Plato, I want to strike from the record the comment he made above. He thought it was amusing and was trying to be a smart ass but he had second thoughts after rewatching your scatter-shooting testimony. He did enjoy seeing all the JPO's and bigwigs from the state government testify and is pleased with the one year results with Grant C. He also wants you to know that not only Tarrant but his county as well jumped on the Grant C bandwagon.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

It's okay, LMB; hell, Plato's probably right! Tis often the case. Trust me, if so, it wouldn't be the first time I showed up and ruined everybody's afternoon at a public hearing!

That said, part of the reason my testimony was "scatter-shooting" was that I had more points prepared (in a bit more systematic fashion) but because it'd been a long day, for the purpose of not wasting anybody's time I struck all the sections where others had made similar points (literally crossed big Xs over those portions of my notes) so as not to be repetitive. So it lost some of it's structure, for sure, but these public hearings are, at their best, a formal conversation with legislators, and in that spirit much of my testimony reacted to questions and points raised by the members during invited testimony that seemingly never got fully answered.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@1:59, there were four big categories of youth accounting for TYC's reduced numbers:

* 19-20 year olds going to TDCJ.
* No longer accepting misdemeanants
* Shorter minimum and actual lengths of stay
* Counties sending dramatically fewer youth to TYC on the front end, in large part due to diversion grants (and, frankly, the fear they were sending local kids to get raped by staff).

Despite all that, the biggest reason overall for TYC's decline in numbers has been restraint and the use of new alternatives at their disposal by judges at the county level. There are 18,000 more eligible for TYC but for the most part locals are finding ways to manage their own problem children, which isn't a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

I know Townsend said 2 facilities will be closed. Any guess as to which 2?

Anonymous said...

Evins and Crockett have had the worst abuse and control problems. The two at WACO also need vast reforms. All four should be closed.

Anonymous said...

Corsicana and Al Price b/c of all the abuse reported recently?

Anonymous said...

TYC has become such an embarrasment to the state and the nation, it is beyond repair. The old-dogs try to cover and make the most of the dump but most everyone knows the stength needs to go. Good-bye TYC....go die and take your soiled staff and story with you to the grave. Kids may grow again, after the TYC scum scandals have gone. Ashes to ashes...trash to trash - close, bury and forget the TYC coffin.

JTP said...

TJPC and TYC have done remarkably well since 2007 in re-working the paradigm for Juvenile Justice in Texas. While the breath of the "sexual" scandal was apparently overblown and exadgerated,it did present the opportunity for legislators and juvenile agencies to embark on a new direction for Juvenile Justice via the mandates of SB 103. All of that was and is for the good. What continues to mystify me however is the blind spot that the legislature and the agencies have regarding the type of offender that TYC will have to deal with in the next two years, given the fact that counties are eventually going to be sending the kids that are too incorigiable for probation to handle to TYC. That is appropriate. TYC should be the program of choice once such youths fail to respond to what Probation has to offer. However, TYC does not seem to see the writing on the wall with regard handling this hardened population. Without a significant increase in staffing ratios, a willingness to have and use a continuum of force options, including the use of pepper spray, based on a well defined Use of Force policy and increased staff training, I fear that there will be a dramatic increase in youth and worker injuries.

Further, on the treatment side, there needs to be a much larger effort to recruit and maintain a sizeable and quality mental health staff that is paid a competitive salary for those working both in the institutions and those working in aftercare parole programs. None of these things seem to be getting much attention or discussion by the legislature or the agencies. In two years, when the toughest kids filter down through Probation and hit the TYC doors because Probation just could not impact their behavior, a plan should already be in place to deal with what is sure to be a more violent and troubled group of kids who will be inclined to chew the Connections program up and spit it out. TYC should have the ability to send the most resistive youths back before the sentencing judge when they fail to respond to rehabilitation. This will be the population most likely to go on to TDCJ if TYC can't rescue them from the abyss.

Just my opinion. Does anyone else see this as a problem?

Anonymous said...

Some of what you say makes sense, however, TYC has a history of misusing what it is given and managing to screw up new programs. A thorough change in personnel and policies will be needed before TYC can make any real, progressive move forward.