The Texas Public Policy Foundation held a panel discussion in Austin regarding how the State follows up juvenile commitments and what direction their policies might take in the future. Once released from detention or parole, the odds of a juvenile reoffending afterwards are unacceptably high. While the civil commitment of delinquent juveniles is ostensibly done with the goal of rehabilitation, the last twenty years has seen public policy push more towards pure punishment. It was a pleasure, therefore, to listen to some of our state officials speak about their goal of pushing the system back towards a truly rehabilitative goal.
The panel consisted of four speakers:
- The Honorable Jim McReynolds, Chairman of the House Corrections Committee
- The Honorable Robert Eckels, Former Harris County Judge and member of the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section, Juvenile Justice Committee
- Cherie Townsend, Executive Director, Texas Youth Commission
- David Reilly, Chief Juvenile Probation Officer, Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department
Each speaker gave a bit of information about their background and then spoke for about fifteen minutes regarding their views. Mr. McReynolds led the panel with a broad policy discussion on the current state of juvenile probation and re-entry and the need for a more rehabilitative, holistic approach to after-care in the State of Texas. Mr. Reilly then spoke and added that the juvenile probation, in order to be effective, must begin the process of re-integration from the moment the youth hits the system. Judge Eckles followed and also called for a more holistic approach. In particular, Judge Eckles brought up the need for the State and local communities to practice preventative measures instead of just reactive measures in order to keep youths out of detention in the first place. He also opined that many of our current educational rules contribute to the amount of juvenile delinquency in this State by putting “too much bureaucracy in schools and not enough common sense.”
Ms. Townsend of TYC was the last speaker on the panel. As the Executive Director of the Texas Youth Commission, she has overseen a number of positive changes to the way juvenile commitments are handled in Texas. From her speech, it seems likely that she is well on her way to overseeing many more. As Ms. Townsend pointed out in her talk, the children who come through TYC are generally behind in their educations and come from abusive/neglectful backgrounds. In order to address the needs of these children, TYC has started looking beyond the behavior that got them their and more at the “why’s” behind a youth’s commitment. Ms. Townsend has also led the TYC in making changes to the way it coordinates after-care for when the children are released back into the community. Some new initiative include a reading initiative (80% of kids committed to TYC test below grade level), increased coordination with other agencies, multi-systemic family therapy, and major changes to juvenile half-way houses in order to ensure that they are places of rehabilitation and not just dumping grounds for troubled youth.
According to Ms. Townsend, the changes at TYC will be continuing in the future. As she stated so succinctly, Texas needs a system of after-care for these children that isn’t just an afterthought. Along this vein, TYC is in the process of hiring a dedicated Director of Re-entry. The commission is also at the end of a proposal process to target areas with large juvenile offender populations and address the issue of delinquency at the community level. Finally, Ms. Townsend stated that the TYC is enhancing its mentoring programs to help kids be successful in their re-entry, thereby reducing potential revocations of parole.
The ideas and initiative spoken of at the panel were uplifting to someone like me who wants to see the system move back to a truly rehabilitative model. However, as most of the panelists pointed out, the changes that are being made must also be supported by our State legislature. Mr. McReynolds perhaps said it best when he reminded the audience that we are coming up on a new legislative session during a time when finances are tight. The temptation will surely be on our elected leaders to make cuts to some of these new juvenile programs. However, as Mr. McReynolds so succinctly stated, “We make a lot of mistakes trying to save a dollar only to end up spending ten later on…we mustn’t dry up money that will pay dividends down the road.”