April 20, 2007
Senate passes TYC reform bill

This looks pretty good.

The Texas Senate unanimously approved fundamental changes in the Texas Youth Commission on Thursday, supporting efforts to reduce the population at its facilities, improve staff-to-offender ratios and require enhanced training for guards.

Senate Bill 103, by Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, passed 30-0, and is part of the promised overhaul of an agency reeling from accusations that incarcerated youths have been sexually and physically abused by staff at many of the state's 15 correctional facilities.

The Senate is trying "to rebuild, restructure TYC from the bottom up," he said, adding that his bill would create "checks and balances, a wide open system that is transparent. It'll change the whole culture in the way we treat our young people."


The scandal left even those normally critical of state criminal justice laws applauding the proposed changes. "I've never witnessed such profound and progressive reforms," said Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Lawmakers are vowing to significantly reduce TYC's offender population by diverting to other facilities youths over 18 and those convicted of misdemeanors. An incarcerated offender who reaches 19 would either be released without conditions, released on parole or sent to the adult prison system.

Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, who is pushing a similar bill through the House Corrections Committee, which he chairs, noted that most states keep misdemeanor offenders out of state juvenile jails.

Madden's bill would require that guards receive rotating assignments in an attempt to standardize duties. His bill also requires that the proximity of a youth's family be considered when placements are assigned.

Like I said, that all sounds good. If Will Harrell is on board, I'm on board.

The only bad news is that the TYC is going to go too far in dealing with its employees who have felony records of their own.

[TYC Conservator Jay] Kimbrough was surprised to learn that the Youth Commission had hired workers with criminal records, apparently because the commission was having trouble finding staff.

Among its more than 4,600 employees, the Youth Commission had 66 workers with felony records and an estimated 400 or more with misdemeanor arrests or charges.

Of the 66 felons, 45 of them are juvenile correction officers.

"We are re-creating this agency," commission spokesman Jim Hurley said. "This agency needs to be as pristine as possible."

Kimbrough had temporarily suspended the terminations last week as he waited for guidance from lawmakers. Some had questioned whether the terminations should be limited to only the most severe charges or whether Kimbrough should exempt workers who had been convicted years ago.

Ultimately, the lawmakers let Kimbrough fire all of them. The employees will continue to get pay and benefits for 30 days and have a right to appeal the terminations to the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

Kimbrough has made no decision on what to do with workers with misdemeanor charges, but no known felons will be hired in the future.

The announcement came on State Employee Lobby Day, a Capitol meeting of the Texas State Employees Union.

Speaking at a noon rally, Schronda Hawkins, a Texas Youth Commission employee for 10 years, said, "We don't need a witch hunt of our staff."

Hawkins said some of the agency staffers suspected of abusing youths had criminal records and some didn't.

She blamed the agency's old management for covering up problems.

"If you were part of a good-old-boy system," she said, "you got the promotions, and they covered up your problems."

I'm with Grits on this one. More here and here.

Finally, on another note, former Pyote officials Ray Brookins and John Paul Hernandez pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual assault in Ward County.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 20, 2007 to That's our Lege