March 10, 2007
TYC update: Hiring felons, and AG indifference

I suppose given all that's gone on with the TYC, we should consider this a small victory and move on.

The Texas Youth Commission, reeling from a systemwide sex abuse scandal, is stopping a hiring practice that allowed convicted felons to work among troubled juveniles as long as one of two top officials approved it.


The hiring policy reads, in part: "If the conviction or pending criminal charge in question is a capital offense or a felony of any kind, the Human Resources Management Director must obtain specific authorization from the Executive Director or the Deputy Executive Director before the candidate can be hired, rehired, reinstated, promoted or competitively transferred."

The agency granted 210 hiring "exceptions" among 1,751 total hires since May 2006 when it began keeping track.

Since criminal records are destroyed once an applicant is hired, it is not known how many felons were among those granted waivers or what their crimes were.

TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said the agency was "starting over and rechecking everybody," and should know the criminal backgrounds of its employees by next week. Hurley also acknowledged that the agency rarely, if ever, fingerprinted any of its employees.

The hiring policy was adopted in November 2001 and approved again last May. Those giving their approval include the agency's former executive director, the current deputy executive director and the current general counsel.

You know, in the grand scheme of things I think it's laudable that a government agency would allow for people with a felony conviction to be hired under the right circumstances. One of the best ways to prevent recidivism is to ensure that a former inmate has access to steady employment. And given our state's tendency to felonize all kinds of nonviolent crimes, this isn't as risky as it may seem on the surface.

Having said that, if your hiring policy has specific guidelines for those who have been charged with capital offenses, you might want to consider tightening things up a bit. Given all that went on at Pyote, approval from the Executive Director is not sufficient oversight.

And clearly, this is no time for nuance. This policy needs to be suspended indefinitely. But it would be worth asking why it existed in the first place, and has been in place for six years. My best guess: They couldn't find enough applicants to fill all their openings otherwise. When nearly one out of eight hires is the result of this policy, it seems clear that they were a bit on the desperate side. I'd say this is another compelling argument for moving these facilities away from remote rural areas and into the bigger cities, where the job applicant pool should be significantly larger.

Meanwhile, further evidence that the Attorney General's office was part of the problem.

A state assistant attorney general received a report a year ago that graphically detailed the sexual abuse of inmates at a youth prison but declined to pursue the case because of jurisdictional concerns, according to e-mails obtained Friday by The Associated Press.

Attorney general spokesman Jerry Strickland said the lawyer, Will Tatum, should have forwarded the report to his supervisors before responding to the February 2006 e-mail, but he didn't follow agency procedures.


Texas Ranger Brian Burzynski, who sent the e-mail, told lawmakers this week that he had pursued the case since 2005 but could not get federal, state or local officials to prosecute. State Attorney General Greg Abbott has since opened an investigation.

Two days after Burzynski sent the e-mail, Tatum correctly told him that the Ward County district attorney would have to ask Abbott's office for help on the case, Strickland said.

"However, knowing the seriousness of the allegations contained in that e-mail, action would have been taken by the attorney general's office, and this agency would have actively engaged in the matter in any way possible," he added.

I'm trying, but I'm having a hard time coming up with a sympathetic explanation for Tatum's lack of action on this. Putting aside any inconvenient humanitarian concerns, that email should at the very least have screamed "HOT POTATO!" at him. You'd think someone with even kindergarten political instincts would want to run it by a superior, just so that his own ass is covered in the event of blowback. Who knows, maybe the next guy up the chain might have thought it a good idea to pick up the phone and ask DA Reynolds how things were going down there in Ward County. If not, maybe it'd be his name cited in the stories about how the AG's office declined to intervene. Either way, Tatum would be in a better position.

On the other hand, maybe Officer Burzynski should have taken matters into his own hands and made arrests anyway. Grits explains the reasoning, and also notes that there's plenty of cuplability to go around.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 10, 2007 to Scandalized!