TYC to adjust hiring policy

New youth advocate would have been an ineligible hire because of misdemeanor conviction.

By Mike Ward

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Friday, May 25, 2007

Texas Youth Commission officials are preparing to back up a bit on their hard-nosed policy against hiring anyone with a criminal record, including the most serious misdemeanors.

Without an adjustment in the policy, the commission's new ombudsman might be out of a job.

Public records confirmed Thursday that Will Harrell, 42, just hired as the $85,000-a-year advocate for incarcerated children at the scandal-racked agency, was convicted in April 2004 in Travis County on a charge of reckless driving, a Class B misdemeanor.

Under a Youth Commission personnel policy put into effect April 13, in a get-tough move to rid the agency of convicted felons working as guards and caseworkers, no one convicted of one of five types of crimes can be hired, including those convicted of a Class B misdemeanor within the past five years.

"That was not the policy I asked for, and we're going to change that policy," Jay Kimbrough, the agency's conservator, said when asked Thursday about the apparent conflict between the policy and Harrell's past.

"It was my intention that our policy follow that of (the Texas Department of Criminal Justice), that people who had Class A and B misdemeanors in the past five years not be allowed to work in correctional positions. But TDCJ does allow people with misdemeanor convictions to work in other positions, and that's what I intended to allow at TYC."

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Kimbrough as conservator in March to straighten out the management meltdown at the agency, amid investigations into allegations of sex abuse involving incar- cerated teenagers and of a cover-up by top officials.

Kimbrough said he was aware of Harrell's three-year-old conviction when he hired him as ombudsman and learned only about two weeks ago that the agency policy prohibited anyone with Class A or Class B misdemeanors from holding a Youth Commission job.

"I asked for X with this policy, and they gave my Y," he said. "I've told them to fix it."

Kimbrough said Harrell, who joined the agency May 18 despite the policy, will not be affected by the miscue.

Harrell said Thursday that he hadn't been aware that the misdemeanor in his past might be a problem.

"I made a mistake about five years ago, a mistake that I have paid for, and that's the end of the story as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Travis County Court records show that Harrell was arrested by Austin police on May 25, 2003, on an initial charge of driving while intoxicated, a Class B misdemeanor, after an officer stopped him for driving 50 mph in a 35-mph zone.

The charge was later changed to reckless driving, court records show.

Harrell pleaded no contest, and served a year's probation.

The job application Harrell signed at the Youth Commission lists as among the "minimum standards" for direct-care positions that applicants "must never have been convicted of a Class A or B misdemeanor, or the equivalent, during the past five years."

Hurley said Harrell had undergone a criminal background check before he was employed, though officials said copies of it cannot be made public.

Despite Kimbrough's promised change of the hiring policy, the joint legislative committee investigating the Youth Commission scandal in a new internal report identified the tougher hiring restrictions prohibiting all misdemeanants from working at the agency as among the key accomplishments.

Kimbrough said that in recent weeks, officials have discovered that some people the Youth Commission fired for having past felony convictions, in fact, have since been found to have been convicted only of misdemeanors. He said they will be eligible for rehire, as long as they fit the new policy after it is corrected.

Kimbrough said only "a handful" of people are in that situation.

Even with the proposed policy change, which would be to his benefit, Harrell said Thursday that he thinks the revised rule will still be "too restrictive."

"I support the proposal that prohibits people convicted of violent felonies and sex offenders from employment," he said.

"But someone who had a run-in with the law and changed their life for the better is exactly the kind of person you want involved in in criminal justice at TYC," Harrell said. "There is a certain perspective that actual experience gives you."

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Youth Commission hiring policy

Personnel Policy and Procedure Manual

'Persons who have been convicted for any of the following are not eligible to become or remain employed with the agency, nor to serve as a TYC volunteer or employee for a contractor assigned to work in TYC facilities or programs.

(a) a capital offense;

(b) a felony of any kind; (

c) a drug offense;

(d) an offense involving domestic violence;

(e) any Class A or B misdemeanor for which the person was convicted within the last five years.'

Source: Texas Youth Commission

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