AUSTIN – Hundreds of Texas Youth Commission inmates could be released once a special panel reviews their cases, the special master overseeing the investigation of sexual and physical abuse at the agency said Friday.
Jerome Parsee, superintendent of the Texas Youth Commission's Marlin Unit, gave state Rep. Terri Hodge of Dallas a tour of the unit last week. Mr. Parsee, who was arrested Friday, is accused of lying about reports of sexual abuse at the unit.
The reviews, which will focus on inmates whose sentences have been extended beyond the minimum by TYC administrators, could dramatically decrease the number of young offenders incarcerated by the agency. And it's a strong sign of state officials' distrust in a system they fear has either intentionally or inadvertently held children captive.
"I fear there may be youth retained or extended where there's little or no documentation, or little or no logic," said Jay Kimbrough, whom Gov. Rick Perry appointed to run the investigation. "Based on what I have seen so far, I have no confidence in the integrity of that entire system."
Nearly 90 percent of the TYC's 4,700 inmates are serving indeterminate sentences, meaning they aren't released until administrators agree that they've met certain academic, behavioral and therapeutic goals. Of those inmates, close to 2,000 have met their minimum length of stay but have been extended.
The reviews, which will start in the next two weeks, will be conducted by a panel of six professionals and juvenile justice advocates. They will make a recommendation to a retired judge, who will make the final decision.
Hundreds – perhaps even 1,000 or more – could be released if the panel determines administrators have held them back for illegitimate reasons, Mr. Kimbrough said. It's unclear how long the process will take, he said.
THE LATEST Developments Friday in the Texas Youth Commission scandal:
"In theory, you would like to trust the experts at TYC to know when the juvenile has been rehabilitated," said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental affairs for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. In light of the circumstances, he said, "Prosecutors would want a balanced panel – a panel of people intimately familiar with juvenile crime and juvenile rehabilitation."
The anticipated inmate release – plus a legislative commitment to spend "what it takes" to hire more juvenile corrections guards – could correct TYC's chronic staffing problems, Mr. Kimbrough said. Youth prisons have one guard for every 15 inmates during the day, and that can slip to one guard for every 24 inmates at night. Industry experts recommend no more than eight inmates for every guard.
When juvenile offenders are sent to TYC prisons, only the very worst receive specific sentences. The vast majority must stay a minimum time, as long as 24 months. To be released before age 21, they must meet certain educational and behavioral thresholds, called phases.
But inmates can lose their phase rankings for disciplinary infractions – meaning it's not unusual to find youths who've spent several years at TYC despite having minimum stays of only 12 months.
Mr. Kimbrough, joined Friday by Will Harrell, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said he believes many TYC inmates lose their rankings for undocumented and inappropriate reasons – namely retribution for complaints. Both men said as long as school administrators have power over a youth's length of stay, inmates will be vulnerable to sexual or physical abuse and never feel comfortable blowing the whistle.
Mr. Harrell pointed to a case where a young woman had her stay extended because guards found she had an extra pair of socks – deemed "contraband."
"Too many kids are going in, and too many are staying for too long," Mr. Harrell said. "In many cases, it's for retaliation."
Under Mr. Kimbrough's plan, the panel will consist of representatives from the ACLU, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP, the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and the state's Special Prosecutors Unit. It will meet in Austin to review the case of every inmate incarcerated past his or her minimum sentence – even if that extension included a move to an adult prison.
If the cause for an extension is not clearly documented, Mr. Kimbrough said, "they need to be out of the system."
"We don't know how long it's going to take, but we're going to start," he said. "This is going to be a big bite."
Sending low-risk, over-extended TYC inmates home is just one way to bring the guard-to-inmate ratio down. Mr. Kimbrough said he has been assured by lawmakers that the state will spend freely to hire new guards – and to install far more electronic surveillance cameras on campuses. Mr. Kimbrough is also seeking funds to dispatch independent counselors and psychologists to each TYC institution.
As of Friday – day 20 of Mr. Kimbrough's tenure as chief investigator – authorities had opened nearly 1,100 cases at TYC facilities and found 111 agency employees with felony charges or arrests on their records. Another 450 employees either had misdemeanor charges or arrests, or misdemeanor warrants for their arrest.
Under TYC policy, job applicants aren't required to report misdemeanor arrests or convictions, but they must report felony convictions. All employees must report any arrests or convictions that occur once they're employed.
Mr. Kimbrough said if he has his way, all felons at the agency will be terminated – regardless of how many new employees must be hired.
Separately on Friday, authorities arrested Jerome Parsee, the superintendent of the TYC's Marlin Orientation and Assessment Unit southeast of Waco and accused him of lying to police investigators about reports of sexual abuse at the facility.
And the agency fired two more high-level employees: Emily Helm, assistant general counsel, and Ray Worsham, director of youth care investigations who was suspended this month over allegations he redacted reports on abuse investigations.
Neither Mr. Parsee, Ms. Helm nor Mr. Worsham could be reached for comment. It is unclear whether Ms. Helm is the subject of an agency investigation.
TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said that Mr. Parsee, who has been superintendent since 2001, lied to a police investigator and said he was unaware of Marlin inmates complaining of sexual abuse.
Investigators later found evidence that Mr. Parsee had been notified about several sexual assault allegations at the facility, which is the first stop for all inmates entering the TYC system.
Mr. Parsee met with House Democrats last week as they toured the Marlin center, and the House Democratic Caucus leader, Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, accused the administrator of lying to lawmakers, too.
The arrest, Mr. Dunnam said, "underlines why we need an immediate and independent investigation into who knew what about sexual abuse at TYC and when they knew it."
Staff writer Doug J. Swanson in Dallas contributed to this report.
Nearly 1,100 investigations have been opened since the state began looking into problems at the Texas Youth Commission. A breakdown of the cases was released Friday.
The leading types of complaints:
General complaint, 213TYC locations with most personnel actions to date:
Giddings State School, 112
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