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Sunset gives roadmap for TJJD, but removes wage increase language in lieu of new youth prisons

Gainesville TJJD
Paul Flahive
/
Gainesville State School in far north Texas is one of five rural facilities that detain high-needs often violent juvenile offenders.

If you blinked for just a little too long, you may have missed the changes voted on by the Sunset Advisory Commission to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) in a hearing Thursday.

With military efficiency, Sunset Chair and Republican State Sen. Charles Schwertner pressed through Sunset staff recommendations, swapping out a few pieces and tacking on others.

The Sunset Advisory Commission gives broad discretion on how a state agency will proceed. Its recommendations can and have killed low-performing or antiquated state bodies. They have merged state organs, changed philosophies and radically altered them.

With regards to the juvie jailers, it instead took a less dramatic approach — for now.

Revisions to oversight, to transparency, to county funding and regionalization, as well as who and how TJJD should collaborate with were some of the areas addressed. It gave the agency two years to improve based on the limited remedies proposed.

But one of the areas left unaddressed was one of the biggest root causes of all TJJDs problems — staffing the agency.

“Unless TJJD’s critical staffing issues are adequately addressed, the juvenile justice system will remain in a cycle of instability,” read the Sunset advisory report.

TJJD had a 71% turnover rate last year — the highest turnover rate of any state agency by a wide margin.

TJJD implemented a 15% raise in 2022 and saw a large increase in applications. A spokeswoman said they were bolstered by historic surge — and had dropped their system wide overcapacity issue from 167% to 125% — but it would still take several months of consistently high hiring and retention to get to full staff.

And at 750 kids, this is the fewest youth the agency has ever had in its facilities.

“The fact that we can't staff the fewest number of kids ever is a problem and goes to, you know, speaks to the severity of our staffing shortages,” said Brett Merfish with Texas Appleseed.

Merfish and Appleseed have been some of the agency's biggest critics. But several senators spoke about the need for staff raises that would entice employees — after voting to not include language asking for money for raises in their appropriations request.

"The long term viability of this agency, I think, is in jeopardy — it's something that we can analyze, if we do not commit additional resources, and make sure this agency is able to carry out the tasks that we're expecting it to,” said Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas).

Sunset Advisory commission met to discuss the fate of the system that the interim director said was "collapsing."

Schwertner removed language to increase funding to stabilize staffing, replacing it instead with an increase to build two new large youth jails.

This was changed not because legislators don’t want raises for TJJD employees — to Schwertner — but because everyone already knows these people need raises. And he said it was redundant to highlight a known issue.

“For that reason, my modification to Recommendation 1.1 removed the redundant request and focused the request to the appropriators on the other budgetary needs for TJJD, such as new facilities and community based programs. I am committed to reforming TJJD and ensuring the agency has the resources it needs to perform up to the expectations of the people of Texas."

Sunset Commission cannot mandate budget outlays. It crafts legislation around state law. For money, it makes its wishes known to budget writers in a letter.

Because spending more than a $100 million — possibly a couple hundred million dollars — dollars on new facilities is such a large ask, the choice was made by Schwertner and Sunset to prioritize the facilities.

Nothing is barring them from requesting both. And with just three appropriation actions sent to budget writers, it is hard to know if there is merit to the idea it would get lost in the shuffle.

For leaders of the agency, Thursday’s vote was positive.

“These proposed changes will help us steer TJJD forward in a positive direction as we strive to stabilize our workforce, serve youth with increasing specialized needs and improve capacity and processes across the state,” said Shandra Carter, interim TJJD executive director, in a statement.

But advocates are worried Sunset didn't do enough to address the staffing issue.

“For a kid on a day to day level it means they're not getting treatment. It means they're in their rooms for 20 to 23 hours, it means that they are subject to a lack of safety to chaos, to the overuse of force, the overuse of restraints, the overuse of administrative segregation,” Merfish said. “And so without talking about that, and figuring out how to really change it, I don't think this will be enough.”

The U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into the state’s five secure detention facilities more than a year ago over allegations of civil rights violations dealing with physical and sexual abuse. Those findings are expected any day now. Merfish and others filed a complaint with the DOJ over these issues.

TJJD said it needs an additional $33 million in wage increases in the next biennium, which is smaller than facilities requests but not chump change. (This is nearly the amount that Gov. Greg Abbott removed from the agency this summer, directing it to his border security activity Operation Lone Star.)

Staffers that TPR spoke with expressed concern over their personal safety in the secure detention facilities. Data shows assaults on guards are a regular occurrence as is the use of physical and chemical restraints or pepper spray. The agency has the highest number of workman’s compensation claims.

The agency had already drafted a nearly $1 billion biennium budget to address critical staffing needs, raised wages, upgrading older facilities and building new ones. It is about 47% higher than the previous two year funding.

The vote Thursday resulted or will result in mandates to TJJD managers, a letter to budget writers with three budget requests and the crafting of a bill to express Sunset’s wishes.

That bill will be just one of thousands, and several additional ones could be proposed about TJJD.

New facilities

The new juvenile detention facilities Sunset legislators are asking for are 100 beds each — roughly twice the size of the jails TJJD was requesting — and would accommodate the projected growth in custody from the legislative budget board.

“It is too big for what we know works for youth, and you also going to have a similar challenge of staffing it in my opinion,” Merfish said.

More than half of juvenile offenders were held in facilities less than 100 in 2018. The new facilities would buck current trends toward smaller, more targeted ones.

TJJD requested $120 million for the smaller versions which would have been 48 or so youth.

The locations for the facilities are to be determined by Jan. 6, 2023, and are supposed to be near large population centers that will make them easier to staff.

The number of secure facilities the state oversees for juveniles has dropped by 50%, closing five of its 10 secure detention facilities — some of the worst alleged offenders of physical and sexual abuse.

The facilities it has now are mostly rural and aged. Four of the five are more than 30 years old. Giddings — more than an hour east of Austin — celebrated its 50th birthday this year.

Oversight

TJJD has been in perpetual crisis since it was formed in 2011, according to Sunset Commission staff. It was formed after the scandal-plagued Texas Youth Commission and the Texas Juvenile Probation Department were merged.

Other than staffing, one big reason is leadership changes.

Camille Cain departed the beleaguered agency after four years and mixed results at reforming the agency which is now under federal investigation.

Sunset staff also recommended multiple increases to oversight and transparency to try and address this. It is recommending that the board of directors be slimmed down from 13 to nine people.

“We look forward to working with our board, county probation partners and other youth-serving state agencies as we adopt these measures, which will strengthen TJJD and help us fulfill our mission of serving youth and keeping communities safe,” Carter said.

In 2022, TJJD lost the chairman of its board, Dallam County Judge Wes Ritchey, who retired. A couple months later Camille Cain resigned abruptly. It is still without a permanent director, and its current board chair, Bexar County District Judge Lisa Jarrett, is expected to resign after the next meeting, according to a source with knowledge. She retired from the bench and no longer qualifies for the position.

For advocates, the worst avoided ... for now

One idea floated in the June Sunset Advisory Commission was to combine the problem-plagued TJJD with the Texas Criminal Justice Department — pairing youth and adult detention programs. The idea was discussed at length during the meeting.

Sunset staff did not recommend it, noting the high costs of implementing federal guidelines as well as the trend away from these bodies as examples.

This idea did not materialize Thursday — a relief to child welfare advocates who were apoplectic at the idea. The TDCJ is not without its own scandals, wage woes and staffing problems.

But the decision to only extend the life of TJJD two years instead of the recommended six has caused speculation at the symmetry of the situation. TJJD will now be back in front of Sunset commissioners at the same time TCJD will be allowing for the ease of a potential marriage.

The plan to not raise wages of TJJD employees above those of TDCJ, as had been suggested by some Sunset legislative members, could be another possible explanation for nixing staff stabilization language, for the crystal ball-inclined.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive