The Texas Tribune - September 6, 2016
by Johnathan Silver
If state leaders insist, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has identified ways to cut its budget by $16.8 million, or 2.8 percent, for the 2018-2019 biennium. But the agency really wants a $170 million bump so it can comply with state and federal laws, fix up some of its battered facilities and bolster behavioral programs.
In June, the state's top elected officials told most agencies to draw up budget requests for the 2017 legislative session reflecting a four percent cut in funds. The juvenile justice department was allowed to propose smaller cuts because behavioral health spending is exempt from budget cuts.
But the agency says in the coming years it expects more youths in its lockups even as it grapples with high staff turnover and other pricey demands.
Instead of cutting its budget, agency leaders say, it really needs about $170 million added to its more than $600 million biennium budget. Particularly worrisome is another budget scenario under which agencies have been asked to contemplate 10 percent reductions.
"Although TJJD has identified areas for the 10 percent reduction as required, such reductions would place the agency out of compliance with state and federal law, and would undermine TJJD’s ability to promote public safety and produce positive youth outcomes," the agency states in its budget request.
"We're optimistic the Legislature will agree these cuts would be counterproductive," Lauren Rose, director of youth justice policy with Texans Care for Children, said in a statement. "In fact, we're optimistic the Legislature will go the other direction and make the additional investments TJJD is proposing to help keep communities safe and put youth on a path to be productive, healthy members of our community."
The agency's lockups are projected to house between 1,386 and 1,403 youths in the next budget biennium, according to the Legislative Budget Board. The count as of Friday was 1,329, higher than expected, and more than what the agency is funded to handle.
The numbers may seem small, but the agency stresses that the troubled youth, 6 to 17 years old, tend to come to the agency with aggression and mental health issues and need individualized treatment plans. Also, the agency has statutory requirements —including one from the Prison Rape Elimination Act that requires a set ratio of correctional officers to youth.
The agency also hopes for more money to support probation initiatives, expand positive youth development programs, pay for vehicle replacements, increase salaries, address medical and psychiatric care, modernize information technology systems and more.
Part of the job for lawmakers, policy experts and advocates will be to find out why the number of youths locked up is expected to increase.
"It's a decent, good start on the legislative appropriations process," said state Rep. James White, a Woodville Republican on the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee.