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TJJD Weighs Closing Mental Health Unit, Halfway Houses

City leaders in Corsicana are worried about what the likely closure of a 124-year-old youth detention facility that houses mentally ill juvenile offenders will mean for the town's economic future.

City leaders in Corsicana are worried about what the likely closure of a 124-year-old youth detention facility that houses mentally ill juvenile offenders will mean for the town's economic future.

“It’s very difficult to find jobs with state benefits,” said Corsicana Mayor Chuck McClanahan. The closure, he said, “is something we certainly don’t want."

The Legislature this year approved a budget measure that requires the Texas Juvenile Justice Department to slash about $23 million from its budget and shutter one of its six secure facilities by Jan. 1. The agency staff has recommended closing the Corsicana unit and two halfway houses to meet the budget-cutting target. A final decision from the board is expected by the end of August, and TJJD officials said they are committed to helping displaced employees find other jobs in the agency. But city leaders are worried that the closure will cost local jobs, and juvenile justice advocates are concerned about where the 117 juveniles in those facilities will go.

“It’s an unfortunate decision that [facilities] would be closing without those placements already available,” said Lauren Rose, a juvenile justice policy associate with Texans Care for Children. She said previous “really quick” closures at other TJJD units were followed by increased violence at the remaining facilities.

The potential shuttering of Corsicana and the halfway houses requires particular attention, Rose said.

Halfway houses “offer opportunities for re-entry back into home communities,” Rose said. “They should be one of the last to be closed.”

The budget measure calls for the $23 million in cuts and additionally requires that TJJD pay for only five of its existing six secure facilities by Jan. 1, said TJJD spokesman Jim Hurley. To meet the dollar amount required, staff members have recommended closing the Beto House in McAllen and Turman House in Austin along with Corsicana. The halfway houses, which help juvenile parolees reintegrate into society, each house 19 juvenile offenders.

To determine which facilities to recommend for elimination, “staff did a very thorough evaluation of all our facilities,” Hurley said. 

According to the evaluation for the Corsicana unit, limited space to expand and the “poor condition” of buildings on the campus contributed to the recommendation for closure. Additionally, glass and debris “continually unearthed after rain or strong winds” on the Corsicana grounds presented the danger of self-harm to its 79 mentally ill offenders, the evaluation said.

Beto House was recommended for closure because two other halfway houses in the Valley can continue to provide reintegration services for offenders, Hurley said. Turman House is the only halfway house in its area, but Travis County has reduced its use of TJJD facilities by sending fewer juvenile offenders to institutions, he said.

Beto House residents who have not completed their parole will likely be transferred to the other halfway houses in the Valley in the event of a closure, Hurley said. Turman House’s non-Travis County offenders would likely move to facilities near their own homes, and other offenders would go to TJJD halfway houses such as the one in San Antonio, he said.

Hurley said the TJJD will ensure that juveniles who might be transferred away from the Corsicana unit “continue to receive a very high level of care in an appropriate setting,” but he declined to specify where offenders would be moved if that unit closes. “We are still looking at several options,” he said. 

The TJJD has also kept a slew of positions vacant throughout the agency to “accommodate” displaced employees, Hurley said. The agency plans to work with the Texas Workforce Commission and local employers to help displaced workers find new employment opportunities, he said.

The TJJD board discussed possible shutdown of the Corsicana unit at its July 15 public hearing in Austin, which drew about 30 people, including facility supporters like McClanahan; state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana; and state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, the Corsicana Daily Sun reported.

The board was originally scheduled to vote on all three recommended closures July 26, but it will likely decide the fate of the Corsicana unit at the Aug. 30 board meeting, Hurley said. The TJJD board chairman asked agency staff to present the recommendations in August to allow the board to consider testimony from the July 15 public hearing, he added.

The board, however, will vote on Friday on the recommendations for closure of the two halfway houses, Hurley said. 

For McClanahan and others hoping the Corsicana unit will continue, the delay in making a decision might be a positive indicator.

“We have a large group of citizens that for many, many years have gone out there one, two, three times a week and have mentored them and have developed a rapport with them,” McClanahan added. “I don’t think that will be able to be matched anywhere else.”

But Hurley said the legislation that calls for Corsicana's closure is pretty unambiguous. “There’s not a whole lot of room to interpret [the rider],” Hurley said. “That’s pretty simple math.” 

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/07/24/tjjd-weighs-closing-mental-health-unit-halfway-hou/.

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