Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Texas spends $99k a year to lock up each troubled youth, figures show

Texas spends $99k a year to lock up each troubled youth, figures show
Lawmakers vow to cut costs at Texas Youth Commission.

By Mike Ward

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Even though the Texas Youth Commission's incarcerated population has dropped by almost half in two years, the annual cost of locking up juvenile offenders in Texas has climbed to almost $99,000 per inmate — a 66 percent jump since 2006.

With a tight state budget and a tough economy, legislative leaders say that is too costly, and they are moving to cut spending at the commission.

It is the latest controversy for an agency that has weathered several in the past two years, including a sexual-abuse and cover-up scandal and the revelation that it paid a contractor for hundreds of empty beds.

"It's ridiculous," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and an author of the 2007 reforms that were prompted by the abuse scandal. "They've got twice as many correctional officers as they need. ... They've got a big, expensive central office staff they don't need. ... And they're just trying to protect their turf and bureaucracy."

Commission officials say they have cut staff and are working with lawmakers.

"I have done a lot of tightening and have reconfigured what kind of facilities we're operating," Youth Commission Executive Commissioner Cherie Townsend said Tuesday. "I don't know how much more can be reduced ... unless we decide to deliver the services differently."

The cost increases were contained in a report by the Legislative Budget Board that tracked the incarceration costs in both the juvenile and adult corrections systems in Texas.

In its budget requestfor the upcoming two-year period, the Youth Commission sought funding for more than 4,000 employees while estimating that its lockups would hold about 2,300 offenders. As part of its reforms, the Legislature mandated a staffing ratio of one guard for every 12 incarcerated youths.

In February 2008, the agency had about 4,100 employees and about 2,400 incarcerated youths. At some lockups, that meant there were about twice the number of employees as youths, according to Youth Commission figures. In 2007, the agency had about 4,600 employees and about 4,100 incarcerated youths.

"The increases in the TYC costs per day in fiscal years 2007 and 2008 are primarily a result of population decreases associated with the implementation" of the reforms, a Legislative Budget Board report states, noting that the multimillion-dollar costs of new video-surveillance cameras and other gear were not included.

In contrast to the Youth Commission costs, the report says Texas taxpayers spent $17,337 for each adult offender in 2008, a 12 percent increase from 2006.

Youth Commission spokesman Jim Hurley said the agency is working to reduce its spending without adversely affecting programs and operations that are focused primarily on rehabilitation, rather than incarceration, as many adult corrections programs are.

"The cost of juvenile programs is generally higher than adults," he said.

Townsend has assured legislative budget-writing committees in recent weeks that she is working to "right-size" the agency with layoffs and reassignments, at the Austin headquarters and at lockups across Texas.

On Feb. 20, Townsend eliminated 260 jobs and reduced the population from 96 to 48 youths at the West Texas State School, where the sex abuse scandal that triggered the reforms started. By eliminating 720 positions since she was hired in October, Townsend said she has saved $25 million a year.

The Youth Commission budget dropped from $314.9 million in 2008 to $237 million in 2009, according to Legislative Budget Board figures. Whitmire and others say it could be reduced further.

"I think we could better deliver a lot of the services, a lot of the programs for these youth, in the communities and not at TYC units," Whitmire said.

The agency's initial budget request was $249.1 million for 2010 and $253.8 million for 2011. But ata recent meeting, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, told Townsend to return with a pared-down version. She said she is in the process of complying.

Although legislative leaders have yet to see the new figures, Senate budget writers are expected to begin discussing their own reductions, perhaps as soon as today — including discussions about possibly closing two additional lockups.; 445-1712

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