Criminal Justice Reform and Oversight in Texas
by State Senator Kel Seliger
For a long time, one of the areas of greatest concern for members of the legislature and the general public is that of criminal justice. While these concerns have come from all aspects of the criminal justice system, institutional issues in both adult and youth facilities, health care and rehabilitation seem to many to be in the most need of legislative attention in the coming 81st Legislature. In truth, issues of criminal law, parole, probation, the courts, and law enforcement will likely receive considerable attention as well.
A tremendous amount of energy and attention was directed to the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) in the last legislative session. So serious were the problems, so deficient was the leadership, and so negligent the management of this agency that its board resigned, and the Legislature passed a sweeping reform of the agency in Senate Bill 103 (SB 103). The governor responded by appointing a conservator to essentially take control of the agency, resulting in a number of employees being summarily dismissed or resigning. One of the positive elements of this process was the bipartisan tone and cooperation of the two houses of the Legislature to make some real progress in an entity which is essential to the state. To date, two facilities have been closed, and there is an active review and spirited debate on the use of isolation and pepper spray in addressing discipline problems in youth facilities.
Is the Texas Youth Commission fixed? I believe that the new conservator, Richard Nedelkoff, is an experienced and determined individual who is putting together a management and supervisory team that will make needed changes at TYC. These changes must result in an agency that is an effective correctional institution that supplies educational and health care support that is responsible and productive. Ultimately, the goal for TYC is to create a safe and secure environment where the youth can reform their behavior and hopefully be released to lead normal, productive lives.
There are some legislators who believe that the $235 million in taxpayer dollars spent to keep the troubled agency running could be spent more effectively. The goal of juvenile corrections is rehabilitation, and Senator John Whitmire, Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, believes this can best be accomplished by keeping troubled youth in their home communities and giving the counties the funds necessary for housing, education, health care and rehabilitation. I agree with Senator Whitmire that transferring state funding to counties to create or utilize existing juvenile corrections programs is worth a study to determine the extent to which money can be saved. It is imperative, however, that we do not impose an unfunded mandate on counties.
Recently, two things occurred that deliver a warning to us about the adult correctional system, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). One wing of the Dalhart Unit had to be closed because of a shortage of Correctional Officers and other staff that are necessary to operate an efficient and safe prison. In central Texas, an injured inmate did not receive adequate medical care and later died. There was a Senate hearing into the incident that the Inspector General felt was caused by behavior so irresponsible that it justified a felony indictment.
The two situations share a common, if not only, cause. In our system, the taxpayers are actually getting more than we pay for. At a low pay scale, the system has many dedicated professionals who could make a good deal more money in another vocation. They want to be corrections professionals, and the state needs them to maintain a system that meets industrial and constitutional standards and see to it that the prisons are secure places to work. It is not safe inside our prisons or in the communities in which they are located to staff them with personnel who would be working almost anywhere else if it were possible. In the injury-related case, a troubling possibility was raised before the Senate committee. At several points of health care contact, had the inmate been examined or treated by professionals just one or two levels of training above those available, the response would have been more timely and medically appropriate. This might have resulted in the individual's life having been saved.
Both of these situations would seem to be related to our ability and willingness to appropriate the funds necessary to properly operate a system that currently houses over 150,000 individuals and serves a state of almost 24 million. Clearly, budgetary constraints are not the only challenges we will face in the area of criminal justice in the 81st Legislature, but legislators, law enforcement professionals, prosecutors, judges, parole and probation departments, rehabilitation specialists, and the leadership of TYC and TDCJ will have a very busy interim and intense legislative session dealing with these issues this year and next.