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Lawmakers stall in repairing TYC

San Antonio Express News | March 26, 2007
R.G. Ratcliffe

AUSTIN — The problems at the Texas Youth Commission are easy to recognize: Isolated facilities, poorly trained guards and not enough staff.

But, so far, the legislative battle to overhaul the troubled juvenile corrections system has been almost as massive as the problems lawmakers are trying to fix.

"We need to get past small disagreements because this is a big problem and the solution needs to come very quickly, and, unfortunately, it seems to be dragging a bit," said state Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-San Antonio, the sponsor of one of the major agency reform bills.

The first wide-ranging legislation meant to fix reported physical and sexual abuse problems at the commission is expected to emerge Tuesday from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

That bill, by Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has been more than a year in the making — growing out of a 2004 riot at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg — and had its progress delayed by the infighting that erupted with the TYC sex scandal.

"We need to fix the problem, period," Hinojosa said. "The finger-pointing just slows down the process."

No agreements

But although there is a general agreement that a quick solution is needed, the devilish details have sparked one skirmish after another.

The Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry have fought over whether a special master or a conservator should preside over the short-term repairs at the agency.

The House argued for almost three hours last week over whether crimes in the commission's facilities should be handled by local prosecutors, a special prosecutor or the special prosecutions unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In the end, the bill at issue was sent back to the House Corrections Committee.

TYC acting Executive Director Ed Owens offered an agency rehabilitation plan, but Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire said it lacks "the urgency factor."

Legislators are proposing commission guard-to-youths ratios of 1-to-12. Special Master Jay Kimbrough wants the ratio to be half that. At present, it is not uncommon for there to be one juvenile corrections officer for every 24 youths.

Reviewing sentences

On Friday, Kimbrough unveiled a plan along with the Texas office of the American Civil Liberties Union to review the sentences of youthful offenders who had their sentences extended by agency authorities. Kimbrough wants to find out if students have been kept in the system for purposes of retaliation or intimidation.

"This doesn't take legislation. This just takes people sitting down, recognizing there's a problem and working together," Kimbrough said.

Things have not been that simple in the Legislature, though.

Many members have been upset that a sex abuse scandal brewed at the West Texas State School in Pyote and that none of them knew about it until it was reported in the press last month. There is evidence that members of Perry's staff knew no prosecutions were coming out of the case as early as June 2005.

"It's an issue of trust," said Rep. Jim Dunnam, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "This thing just smells bad. In the way it is being handled (by Perry's staff). They're trying to give the appearance that they're doing something, but the undercurrent is they're trying to cover themselves."

Perry dismisses such talk.

"This 'When did you know? When did you know it? Do you think someone should have done more?' is missing the point of how are we making progress to getting these kids the protections that they need, and that's exactly what is happening," Perry said.

"I am absolutely satisfied with his (Kimbrough's) progress and hope the Legislature will continue to work with us to put safeguards into place and not spend any more legislative time standing in a circle pointing to the left and saying, 'It's his fault.'"

Dig deeper?

At present, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and the House Corrections Committee are working on bills to overhaul the youth commission. And a special joint committee is investigating how the problems at the youth agency got so bad.

Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, is on the special joint committee. He does not believe the group is doing enough and should be hearing from FBI agents who investigated allegations of sexual misconduct at the West Texas State School.

Harris said he wants to know what happened to child support payments that were collected by the agency. And he wants to know why it has not moved immediately to separate 11- and 12-year-old offenders from those who are 18 to 20.

"I don't understand why we're not being aggressive, and I'm frustrated with it," Harris said. "I don't think we're digging hard enough for the truth."

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