Abuse reports influence some, but official says prisons are improving


07:32 AM CDT on Monday, April 9, 2007
Texas judges are sending fewer children to the scandal-ridden Texas Youth
Commission for punishment and rehabilitation since reports of widespread
abuse at its facilities were made public.

TYC typically receives larger numbers of offenders in late winter and early
spring, said spokesman Jim Hurley. Now, judges are sending only about half
the normal amount. Last week, Texas courts sent 33 children.

"I think historically, that at this point in the year, we would be getting
60 or 70 referrals a week," Mr. Hurley said. "Now, it's more like 40."

State District Judge Erleigh Norville in Kaufman County is among the judges
no longer sending children to the youth commission. She recently sent a boy
to a trade school instead of TYC even though a previous trip to the school
did not work.

"Until the TYC cleans it up, and we know it's cleaned up, we have to do
other things," Judge Norville said.

Also Online
Investigative Series: Abuse scandal rocks TYC
Although the youth commission remains overpopulated, it's likely a safer
place than it was just a few months ago, Mr. Hurley said. And, he said, it's
only going to keep improving.

"If I had a child going to the Texas Youth Commission, I would rather them
go now than a few years ago," he said. "This agency is not going to resemble
anything like it used to be. We'll have a better staff-to-student ratio,
electronic surveillance ..."

The TYC scandal erupted after The Dallas Morning News and the Web site of
the Texas Observer reported in February that agency officials ignored signs
of sexual abuse of inmates at the West Texas State School in Pyote for more
than a year.

A TYC internal review found that administrators were warned repeatedly of
suspicious behavior but that those warnings were dismissed or covered up. As
of the end of March, officials had opened more than 1,550 investigations,
and 102 employees were identified to have felony arrests or charges on their
records.

Pronounced drop
The five counties that send the most juveniles to TYC all show a decline in
referrals since the scandal broke, according to TYC records. Youth
commission officials say the drop from Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant and
Travis counties is even more pronounced because of the usual upswing in
numbers at this time of year. Travis County has sent only one child since
mid-February.

TYC said most other counties send so few children it's impossible to tell
whether they have reduced how many offenders they send. Last year, records
show, judges sent more than 2,700 juveniles to TYC. During one week at the
end of January, TYC admitted 84 children.

In Dallas County, state District Judge Bill Mazur is cutting back on how
many youths he sentences to TYC.

"I'm still sending them, but not quite as freely as I was before," Judge
Mazur said. "There are some close calls. The close ones don't go."

In Rockwall County, state District Judge Brett Hall sends only one or two
kids to the youth commission each year. He said that he wants to make sure
problems are corrected before he sends any more.

"But ultimately, for a serious offender, you don't have other options under
the law," he said.

Other area judges echoed his sentiments.

State District Judge Cheryl Lee Shannon, a juvenile court judge for 12 years
in Dallas County, said offenses such as murder mean the child needs the
strict supervision and rehabilitation of the youth commission.

Other times, she said, the juvenile has already exhausted options such as
probation and community programs. Other options include at-home probation,
intense probation, drug treatment centers, trade schools and therapeutic
foster homes.

Judge Shannon said she would continue to send youths to TYC when it is
appropriate, but added, "I am keeping tabs on what's happened through my
sources and through the media."

Despite its problems, the youth commission can do good work, she said. Also,
it's sometimes best for residents that the youthful offender is removed from
the community.

"While the youth commission is having some challenges, there is a community
out there that needs protection as well. We don't want to overcompensate,"
she said. "There are many cases that have come back to me where I see the
youth commission has done a good job. I don't want to lose the big picture
while the agency is dealing with the significant problems they are having."

Effect on juries
This issue isn't only affecting judges. It's something for juries to
consider, as well.

In Collin County, state District Judge Cynthia Wheless said she recently
dismissed half a dozen potential jurors because they said they would find a
juvenile not guilty in an indecency with a child case even if they believed
he molested the child. They did not want to send the boy to the youth
commission.

"A randomly selected panel in my county is bound to be a good idea of the
consensus of the community on criminal justice issues," Judge Wheless said.
"We are one of the most conservative counties in the state and probably in
the nation. Conservatives are willing to spend their tax dollars on kids.
It's that simple."

The jurors dismissed by Judge Wheless may be an isolated incident. But many
local judges say they have not had jury trials involving possible time with
the youth commission since the abuse was made public.

Judge Mazur of Dallas County said this could happen in other courtrooms.
Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys should be aware of jurors' stances
on the topic.

"The lawyers would be remiss," Judge Mazur said, if they did not question
potential jurors about their feelings about the youth commission.

Misdemeanor offenders
Most urban and suburban counties send TYC only violent offenders or other
felony offenders who have used all local programs. But counties with fewer
resources also send misdemeanor offenders. Juveniles sent for misdemeanor
crimes make up about 20 percent of the TYC population.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he wants to include an additional
$35 million in the state's budget to fund beds for youthful offenders to
remain in the counties where they live.

The senator said he does not want to stop sending children to TYC. He just
wants misdemeanor offenders to stay in the counties where they live. If
approved, the funding for about 600 beds across the state could be used for
some felony offenders.

Mr. Whitmire said this funding would be in addition to other money set aside
for Texas Youth Commission reforms. He said the $35 million would come from
the general fund. He could not say how the state would come up with the
money.

"The pressure needs to be taken off TYC," he said. "It's a win-win. The kids
will be closer to the community, family, role models."

Staff writers Jim Getz and LaKisha Ladson contributed to this report.

JUDGES RESPOND

Are area judges in juvenile courts still sending youths to the Texas Youth
Commission after following widespread allegations of abuse? The answers
differ, but all judges say they are concerned about treatment at TYC
facilities.

•Collin County – Yes

•Dallas County – One of the two judges will cut back

•Denton County – Yes

•Ellis County – Judge declined to comment

•Kaufman County – No

•Rockwall County – No

•Tarrant County – Yes

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research