May 18, 2011

Concerns raised over merger of Texas' juvenile justice agencies

The move will save the state more than $155 million over two years.

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The state will close three Texas Youth Commission facilities and merge the two halves of the juvenile justice system for an expected savings of more than $155 million during the next two fiscal years under legislation awaiting Gov. Rick Perry's signature.

Proponents say both changes result from a more regional approach to dealing with many young offenders, allowing the state to streamline.

"Schools, churches, courts and district attorneys are finding alternatives to making every youth who [commits] a crime a criminal," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "We've tried the model where you lock everyone away. I'm convinced that we can do a better job by keeping these youth in their communities."

But the speed of the merger worries some who work in the juvenile justice system.

If Perry approves the legislation, the Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission will merge, and a new agency, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, will be born Dec. 1.

While optimistic about the merger, Randy Turner, Tarrant County juvenile services director, is among those concerned that the pace is too fast and that assumptions driving the merger could be wrong.

"Instead of trying to merge these two agencies hurriedly and asking them to come up with a plan in the next 90 days, let's do an interim study," he suggested. "Let's take the next two years and come up with a way to do this effectively and systematically."

The three facilities will close regardless of the merger because the system no longer needs them. In 2007, the youth commission housed more than 5,000 youths and had 4,290 filled positions. It now houses 1,620 youths and has 3,405 filled positions, spokesman Jim Hurley said.

The bill's proponents expect those figures to continue falling.

The state has not determined which facilities will close; it completed a series of public hearings on the issue Saturday.

Turner is also concerned, though, that projections of stable levels of incoming youths may be incorrect. Many nonprofit, county and city institutions are experiencing cutbacks, which may make it difficult for them to serve young offenders.

Those realities, in addition to economic hardships for the families of at-risk children, could bring more youths through the juvenile justice system's doors, Turner said.

During the past four years, the federal government has cut funding to local juvenile programs; Tarrant County's portion fell from as much as $3 million to $300,000, Turner said.

"The cuts are coming," Turner said. "Families are in economic distress, people are losing their jobs, there's been a loss of resources in the schools and a loss of mental-health resources. I can't help but think that the probability is greatly increased because of all the cuts that more of these children will be funneled into the criminal justice system."

However, Whitmire, the bill's sponsor, doesn't see a reversal of the trend. He said that while secure facilities will always be needed to house dangerous youth offenders, the number of youths committing crimes is decreasing. For more than three years, during the downturn, juvenile crime rates have continued to decline, he said.

Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, House Corrections Committee chairman, said Friday that he was initially concerned about the speed with which state employees must create the new agency. But Madden said he was swayed by testimony that slower implementation would increase uncertainty within the system.

He also said he expects probation funding to remain the same or increase slightly.

The Legislature began a sweeping overhaul of the juvenile justice system after a 2007 sex abuse scandal that involved allegations of beatings and coercion and a culture of retaliation against whistle-blowers. Several youth commission officials resigned, and at least two were prosecuted.

Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said he included language in the new bill to increase the transparency of state and local detainment facilities.

"No one wants to see what happened back then ever happen again," Veasey said.

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752

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