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Texas Youth Commission Causes Consternation, Conflict in State Legislature

Last year, honoring the request of state Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, the Office of the Independent Ombudsman (OIO) of the Texas Youth Commission investigated the reason for the “alarming trend regarding adult certifications” of youthful offenders in Texas. What the OIO reported was a 31 percent increase, between 2007 and 2008, in the number of youths certified as adults by juvenile courts.

Additionally, the OIO found enough problems with the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) to lead the Senate to propose closing both TYC and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission (TJPC) and combining them into a single entity. The merger of the two agencies, which was estimated to save the state $27 million, had been recommended by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission.

The OIO’s investigation also revealed that the number of juveniles sent to prison with some form of gang affiliation (40%) doubled by the time they were released from custody (80%).

According to the OIO, TYC facilities provided an unbalanced amount of Christian volunteer services while neglecting “minority faiths.” Other concerns expressed by the OIO included TYC’s handling of suicide prevention, discharges of mentally ill offenders, educational services and the agency’s classification process.

A separate report by the State Auditor’s Office, released in May 2009, revealed that between 2007 and 2008, TYC failed to submit almost $20 million worth of contracts for competitive bidding. The agency also failed to honor its agree-ment to hire additional sex offender counselors for juvenile offenders, and could not justify staffing projections for the 2008-2009 fiscal year.

Further, TYC spent $21.8 million to continue operating two facilities it had agreed to close under a 2007 proposal, and failed to comply with a policy requiring the agency’s Office of Inspector General to investigate reports of abuse within 30 days. During FY 2008, it took an average of 100 days to complete such investigations.

In spite of these many problems, both the OIO and the House of Representatives rejected the Senate’s proposal to combine TYC and TJPC into a single, more accountable state agency.

Following a widely-publicized 2007 sex scandal that exposed extensive abuse of juveniles by top-ranking TYC offi-cials, the agency made numerous reforms and reduced its population by almost 50 percent, from 4,809 to 2,419 as of April 2009. [See: PLN, May 2009, p.24; Feb. 2008, p.1].

Despite its findings, the State Auditor’s Office concluded that TYC executive director Cherie Townsend had imple-mented about 72% of the recommendations in an earlier audit and was doing an effective job. The OIO reached the same conclusion.

“We also believe there could hardly be anyone more capable than Cherie Townsend to lead the transformation of TYC, if she is given the chance and is provided the support she needs from the legislature, TYC staff and the community,” the OIO report stated.

Therefore, while state Representatives Jerry Madden and Sylvester Turner vocally addressed concerns raised by the OIO report, on May 4, 2009 the House voted to retain both TYC and TJPC as separate agencies by passing HB 3689. That bill also created a Juvenile Justice Policy Coordinating Council, which will make recommendations to TJPC and TYC on ways the agencies can improve their operations.

In addition to the problems cited in the state audit and by the OIO, Townsend will have to deal with other recent is-sues involving the TYC. One of those issues is an April 29, 2009 report by the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) that found continuing problems at the Evins Regional Juvenile Facility. The Evins facility was placed under federal monitoring for three years as part of a settlement agreement after the DOJ filed suit in January 2008, citing civil rights violations. [See: PLN, Oct. 2008, p.50].

In its April 2009 report, the BOP found the facility still had problems with drugs and other contraband, and with prisoners extorting other prisoners. Further, there were unacceptable delays in investigations into allegations of abuse at the prison. “We’re not there yet, but we’re a lot closer than we were,” said TYC director of public affairs Jim Hurley. “We’re making good progress.”

Someone who isn’t making good progress is the TYC’s recently-appointed ombudsman, Catherine S. Evans, who was indicted in November 2009 on a felony charge of smuggling a prohibited item into a correctional facility.

Evans, a former state district judge who was appointed to the ombudsman’s office by Governor Rick Perry, was accused of bringing a Swiss Army knife into the Crockett State School. Evans said whatever she might have carried with her when she visited the facility was unintentional and “a regrettable mistake.” She was also investigated for bringing contraband into another TYC facility, including a cell phone, prescription medication and money.

Evans resigned after she was charged, on November 30, 2009. “What this indictment shows me is that we have a broken system over there – once again,” said state Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Sources: Associated Press; First Quarter Report FY 2009, Office of the Independent Ombudsman for the Texas Youth Commission;; Houston Chronicle; The Enterprise; Star-Telegram; The Monitor; Austin American-Statesman

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