Texas Forms New Juvenile Department

HOUSTON, Texas — The Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission are being replaced by a new agency intended to bring positive changes to the department.

The new agency is still in its initial phases and looking for a new executive director who will be appointed next month. The two agencies will be molded into one overall department that will account for all juvenile offenders in the state of Texas.

Lawmakers created the new department this year — following the massive overhaul of the Texas Youth Commission that sprang from a 2007 abuse scandal. They say their mission is to save the state money by having one central operational unit and continue the reforms that started five years ago.

“The merger will allow budget savings, and we’ll get more bang for our dollar,” said state Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

The budget has not been decreased, and lawmakers have said during a legislative session that they expected the merger to save as much as $150 million over two years.

Whitmire has been associated with TYC since the scandal broke in 2007, and he was a strong advocate for changing the TYC board. Whitmire questioned several aspects of the case, including the fact that TYC allowed someone with a criminal record to serve as a volunteer at one of the state’s youth facilities.

“This board [TYC] needs to cease to exist,” said Whitmire back in 2007.

Now with the board gone and a new agency under way, Whitmire and other juvenile justice advocates agree that the top priority for the new agency should be the safety and security of juvenile offenders, including the elimination of high-security lockup facilities in remote areas of Texas. During the sex and abuse scandal of 2007, more than 5,000 youths were located in facilities in small rural areas of Texas.

Since the scandal, the number of youths locked up in rural areas has decreased from 5,000 to 1,200 because of reforms made by lawmakers, according to Whitmire.

The reforms include only sending youths charged with felony offences to lockups and preventing offenders older than 19 from going to youth facilities. Lawmakers have also encouraged counties to keep youths close to their homes for treatment and not be transported to rural areas.

Whitmire explains that the number of youths locked up in rural areas will continue to decrease with the creation of the new agency, which is determined to keep youths in their communities for rehabilitation and treatment as needed.

“It’s not rocket science stuff,” said Whitmire. “You break this cycle of criminal activity and violating the law and creating a disturbance, and we’ll all benefit from a safer society and save money too.”

Transporting youths away from urban areas doesn’t make sense to Whitmire. He believes that by sending youths to rural areas they are exposed to fewer resources to help them recover and succeed, and they do not have many role models to look up to.

According to Whitmire, offenders are more successful when they stay in familiar surroundings, such as their communities, where they will likely re-establish themselves after they serve their sentence.

“We’ve just got to have a better youth released than the one that came into the criminal justice system,” said Whitmire.

Although the main goal is to improve treatment and outcomes for youth offenders — according to Jeanette Moll, juvenile justice policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, one of the most achievable goals is to reduce spending.

“The most important thing coming out of this is going to be a more streamlined and efficient agency,” said Moll.

Reducing spending will be the most immediate change, but the merger will have little effect on the youth in facilities, said Jim Hurley, a spokesman for the Juvenile Justice Department.

According to Hurley, the largest changes will occur at the administrative offices in Austin, where the two agencies’ headquarters will be combined under a new executive director who has yet to be appointed.

The new executive director will have a critical role in establishing the reputation of the new agency. According to Ana Yanez Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, she believes it’s crucial for a new leader to understand not only the importance of keeping youths in their communities but also that services in those communities — both secure facilities and treatment facilities — must be adequately funded.

“These kids are ultimately going to transition from the juvenile justice system to the adult system if they are not helped,” she said.