TYC is under another attack
But that's just one of the problems the state's juvenile corrections system faces. Now, a key legislator is seriously talking about shutting the state agency down.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee and co-chairs a joint committee studying the juvenile system, said the state is spending more than $100,000 per each of the 2,400 juvenile lawbreakers incarcerated in the system's far-flung outposts.
Many of them are located where they are as a result of powerful legislators from rural areas over the years treating the facilities as local jobs programs.
Whitmire says the state could get the job done for half that cost or less, if it put the most violent offenders in a youth division of the adult prison system, and treated the remainder in rehabilitation and treatment programs at the local level - primarily in the state's larger cities, where most of them come from anyway.
Whitmire said it would be hard to argue against changing the Texas approach, except for the rural counties where those TYC facilities are located. Some other states are already decentralizing their juvenile offender systems.
It's in the nature of legislative bodies, if things aren't seen as working right, to either tear agencies down, change their structure, or combine them with something else. It's happened particularly with human services and environmental agencies.
Whitmire may well be right. But it's hard to view those statistics, and that argument, in isolation. Most of the people in prison, and in juvenile correction facilities, have had inadequate education, or health care, or both.
The late Phil Strickland, longtime head of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist Church in Texas, was the founder of a group called Texans Care for Children. Consider these words from Strickland, who died in February of 2006, from the Christian Life Commission's Newsletter in August of 2005:
"For several years, I have chaired a group named Texans Care For Children. My dream is for that name to become true. Right now, it is difficult to make any case that we in Texas care for our children. In fact, the data tells us that we probably care for our children less than most states in America. In a state that is full of churches, we are in a race to become dead last in caring for children."
Consider some of these statistics and thoughts from the 2007 update of a "Report on the Agenda for the Decade" by Texans Care For Children:
• Texas ranks 48th among the 50 states - tied for last -- in births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. Texas had 63 per 1,000 (in 2003), contrasted to that national average of 42 (The lower the number, the higher the ranking.)
• Percent of children under 18 living in families with incomes below the federal poverty level: 22 percent in 2005, to rank 46th.
• Number of children 19-35 months old who are getting the vaccinations recommended by the Centers for Disease Control: 78.4 percent in 2005, to rank 36th.
• Per capita spending on mental health treatment: $39.02 in 2003, to rank 47th.
• Children without health insurance (in 2005): 49th.
And the list of grim statistics goes on.
Among the fixes the organization recommends are:
• Spend more money on public education.
• Increase vocational and workforce training.
• Assure transportation and child-care assistance for low-income parents so they can find and keep jobs.
• Raise the minimum wage.
• Support programs shown to be effective in reducing unplanned and teenage pregnancies.
• Work to help families and children who need it to get physical and mental health care, food stamps, and school lunch and breakfast.
• Require that legislation that cuts programs for children and families be accompanied by a Child Impact Statement, that would tell how many kids are affected by the cuts, and how.
Perhaps if leaders gave more attention to some of those ideas, over time the percentage of Texas juveniles and adults behind bars would go down, and Sen. Whitmire and other legislators wouldn't continually be trying to fix broken systems.