State budget may weaken Texas Youth Commission

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The state budget deficit could force the Texas Youth Commission, the state juvenile corrections agency, to substantially lower the costs of providing services — which may force layoffs and facility closures. The news comes after the agency, which was rocked by a series of child sex-abuse scandals that became public in 2007, received high marks earlier this month from a Sunset Advisory Commission staff report as well as an internal evaluation. “The biggest costs you have are personnel and facilities,” said state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, vice chairman of the House Corrections Committee. “They will get the biggest look as we cut back on the number of youth there.” The population of children in TYC custody has declined from more than 5,000 to about 1,500 since the abuse scandals came to light, while the agency still maintains the facilities and staff from when it had significantly more children in its care. Madden said the agency would have to look seriously at cutting the number of facilities the agency maintains to house children. Longtime critics of the commission said neither report addressed the fundamental issues facing the agency. “The jury is still out on TYC,” said Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “We will always need a juvenile corrections commission, but their mission will be defined by the need.” Whitmire said neither the internal report or the Sunset review addressed the problems of urban youth sent to remote rural locations and minimal health and educational services. During the last legislative session, the Legislature granted about $60,000 a child per year to probation departments in urban communities to see if services could be provided more effectively — significantly less than the $130,000 spent per year on each child in TYC custody. “If you gave the juvenile probation department additional money, you could keep more kids in their community, where they are close to their families, the courts and the services they need,” Whitmire said. “Even though TYC may or may not continue, it will continue to be downsized and will probably house just those the community wouldn’t want because of the nature of their crime.” More than 300 children currently in TYC custody will eventually end up in the adult criminal justice system because of the nature of their crime. Child advocates have long pressed for combining the TYC and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission into one agency, the Sunset Commission staff report recommended that TYC remain its own agency but should be downsized to reflect the fact it is caring for fewer children. Child advocates warn that legislators must focus on the impact that budget cuts will have on the children who are in either TYC or the juvenile probation system. “We need to focus on the ramifications of the budget shortfall on the children, if we don’t do that and the funding goes away, then what do they have to work with?” said Ana Yánez-Correa, executive director of Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “Basically, the children can be put at risk by not giving them the resources that they need.”