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Texas' Youthful Offender Program. (CT Feature).

This year, the Texas prison system's Youthful Offender Program has marked its fifth year of operation. With a daily youthful offender population rarely exceeding 250, the program is significantly smaller than the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's other programs that serve its 145,000 inmates. However, the Youthful Offender Program is not small when it comes to the respect and importance bestowed by TDCJ's administration.

TDCJ's youthful offender population, which includes offenders ages 14 to 19, is proof of the old truism that most laws are enacted to deal with the few and not the many. This seems particularly true of a 1995 act that lowered the age, from 15 to 14, at which juveniles can stand trial as adults and be sentenced to adult prisons (offenders automatically are treated as adults at age 17). The new certification law moved TDCJ to create a highly specialized youthful offender program.

There are 1 million children in Texas ages 14 to 16. Last year, 112,000 of these children were adjudicated by the justice system; 1,113 were placed in juvenile facilities under the Texas Youth Commission and 141 were certified to stand trial as adults. Only 39 were sent to the adult prison system. In addition to that small group certified as adults, the Youthful Offender Program's population is augmented by regular prison arrivals ages 17 to 20 and by 16- to 18-year-olds transferred from the state's juvenile system under a determinate sentence law.

TDCJ officials are convinced that the Youthful Offender Program is important to both offenders and the criminal justice system despite its small population and the fact that nearly half of the young offenders are serving terms that will keep them in prison for many years. "It's the right thing to do," says Gary Johnson, TDCJ executive director. "It's right for the security of the unit and it's right for the long-term good of these young offenders, whether they go back on the streets or stay here with us."

Program Launch

The concept of a structured Youthful Offender Program was initiated in 1995 by then-Executive Director Wayne Scott. Like many initiatives Scott launched during his six years at TDCJ, he did not wait for a legislative mandate or budget. Scott assigned the program to the Clemens Unit, a 1 12-year-old prison facility at Brazoria on the Texas Gulf Coast, south of Houston. The location may have been an obvious choice because for years, the all-male unit's 1,100-bed capacity had been populated primarily by younger offenders. A Youthful Offender Program for females is operated at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, but it serves an average daily population of only 15 girls.

Scott's concept won the support of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and for the next two years, TDCJ's Programs and Services Division created a program by using existing resources--counselors already on the payroll, for example --tailoring existing adult programs to reflect the unique needs of younger inmates.

This was not an easy assignment. While 41 percent of the general prison population was convicted for violent offenses, 76 percent of the youthful offenders were convicted for violent crimes. While 55 percent of the general population had substance abuse problems, 85 percent of the youthful offenders were abusers. In addition, intelligence officers estimate that 85 percent of youthful offenders are involved with gangs. Youthful offenders are further profiled as having an average grade level of 5.7 and an average IQ of 95. They have not completed the 10th grade, and have very limited work experience, few positive social skills, and limited or biased knowledge of cultures other than their immediate environment.

Establishing the Program

The program truly came to life in 1997, when it was given a budget and Diana Coates, a TDCJ staff psychologist, was appointed program director. Coates' background includes working with juvenile probationers in Dallas County, with sex offenders in TDCJ, as well as a TDCJ staff psychologist.

The structured program began with Coates, two case managers and three substance abuse counselors who delivered a three-phase curriculum, including orientation, program delivery and transitional preparation. Behavior therapy and education formed the foundation for all program aspects.

A new classification system among the young offenders was established, based on behavior, attitude toward treatment and program performance. A medium- and close-custody wing was created in the youth area so offenders with major disciplinary problems could continue to be counseled and supervised by the program instead of being transferred to another facility. Special security training was also implemented.

The program was off to a promising start, but Coates recalls that outside forces made the program less than successful for its first high-profile offender, Billy Ray Dennis. Dennis was 14 when he killed a Dallas schoolteacher. He was charged with capital murder and became the state's first 14-year-old to stand trial as an adult. Dennis' conviction carried an automatic 40-year sentence before he would be eligible for parole at age 54.

Dennis' arrival as the youngest inmate in the Texas system drew a great deal of media attention and Dennis basked in it. Diane Jennings, a Dallas Morning News reporter, wrote that Dennis was "one of the most famous inmates in the massive Texas prison system ... not because he's big and bad, but because he's small and young.

"We were scared to death something would happen to him," Coates recalls. "But as it turned out, he was safe from everyone but himself and the media. There's no question that the publicity went to his head. Billy Ray simply got too big for his britches and he didn't think our rules applied to him, so he was constantly in trouble and had to be sent to administrative segregation." Coates says that Dennis "obviously didn't avail himself of the potential of our program, but he is now 21 and he has matured and calmed down and has earned minimum-custody (status) in another unit."

Fortunately, Dennis proved to be the exception and not the rule for offenders in the program. Coates and TDCJ administrators were pleased with the program as it matured, yet in 2000, with the hindsight of three years of experience, they decided there was a better approach. "It became apparent that in giving all offenders the same structure, in spreading the same resources evenly among the total population, essentially giving everyone a little bit of all programming, we were not maximizing the effectiveness for those with the highest potential for benefit," says Coates.

Coates and her staff began again and designed a two-pronged approach by dividing the program into two components--a small therapeutic community of about 75 youthful offenders and a sheltered housing program for the remaining 160 offenders. The new approach is consistent with other TDCJ treatment and rehabilitation program policies that seek to maximize results among target clientele as opposed to casting broader but less effective influence over larger populations.

The therapeutic community focuses on treatment and education. Sheltered housing focuses on work and treatment, but it also provides an education component. In both groups, there is a new emphasis on using the offenders' own peer pressure to bring about improvement in both performance and discipline. According to Coates, it is working well. "At this age; there is no influence as strong as peer pressure," she says. "The offenders now understand that when one of them messes up, they all suffer the consequences - and none of them want to suffer consequences for something they didn't do. So they end up with an appreciation for being accountable to the whole group, just as we are all accountable for our behavior in the free world. That psychology works well with rewards for good performance, too," Coates adds.

Therapeutic Community

To be in the therapeutic community, an offender must have entered TDCJ prior to his 18th birthday and must have minimum-custody status. All youthful offenders initially enter TDCJ through a diagnostic reception center. But unlike the 30 days it usually takes to put adult offenders through the extensive diagnostic process, youthful offenders are expedited in 10 days and sent to Clemens. At Clemens, a treatment team conducts advanced diagnostic testing on each offender's social history. That becomes the basis for treatment team decisions on therapeutic community placements. Priority is given to offenders with short sentences and no detainers, which would likely return them to custody for pending unadjudicated charges.

Coates says that the stringent requirements for placement in the therapeutic community serves as a strong incentive for Youthful Offender Program participants to behave and work with diligence because they see entry into the therapeutic community as a goal they can attain. Coates credits the success of the therapeutic community not to its participant selection process, but to the heavy involvement of highly trained staff. She also says that formula is consistent with the TDCJ policy of maximizing program success, whether the individual is staying in prison or going home.

For therapeutic community offenders, the day is divided almost equally between treatment and education. The treatment program is a nearly year-long regimen in four phases--eight weeks of basic coping skills; eight weeks of social skills, anger management, values development and goal-setting; 16 weeks of cognitive intervention; and eight weeks of re-entry preparation. New offenders are placed in the program weekly.

At the young age of these offenders, behavior is dictated much more by instant impulse than by conscious reasoning. That is why the program segment called cognitive intervention--the art of getting these young people to stop and think before they act--is given 16 weeks of structured attention, more than twice the time given in any other area. "Cognitive thinking goes to the core of how their mental processes function or don't function," Johnson says. "That's true of all teen-agers and parents know it. Young people act out on impulse, maybe for no more reason than how someone looks at them."

Johnson comes by his belief in the benefits of cognitive intervention from firsthand experience. He was warden of the Clemens Unit in the early 1990s and remembers the young inmates "who were nothing but trouble for their first three or four years in prison because they couldn't get a handle on their impulsiveness until they actually grew up."

Coates agrees: "Young men will get mad and lash out at another person for nothing more than thinking the other guy is looking at him the wrong way," she says. "This behavior can be controlled through cognitive intervention. Even if it is a learned response just to avoid punishment, that learned response leads to the right result for the individual, just like it works for all of us when we hold our tongues in moments of anger and frustration."

Sheltered Housing

Peer pressure is used in the therapeutic community, but the confrontational nature of most traditional encounter groups is toned down considerably. In the sheltered housing program, offenders spend their mornings working in the hot, humid climate of the Gulf Coast. The Clemens Unit sits on 8,000 acres of agricultural land on which TDCJ raises cattle and swine and grows cotton and vegetables. There is an unending need for hoeing the cotton fields and weeding and harvesting the vegetables. While therapeutic community offenders do not work in the fields, they are assigned service crew jobs, primarily on unit cleanup.

It is in these settings that young offenders learn the cardinal rule of all Texas prisons--diligent work is the basis of all privileges. For the vast majority of these youths, it is their first sustained work experience. More important, it is their first opportunity to experience a meaningful relationship between diligent work and incentive.

The sheltered housing offenders spend their afternoons in counseling sessions, substance abuse treatment or school. The education components for both the therapeutic commmunity and sheltered housing are provided by TDCJ's Windham School District. Windham is a fully accredited school system operating under the supervision of the Texas Education Agency, which supervises all the public schools in Texas. It provides education services to 88 TDCJ units.

Wind ham School District

While teaching school behind bars always presents unique challenges, the Youthful Offender Program students are surprisingly--or perhaps not surprisingly--among the most academically productive group in the Windham system.

Dr. Judi Benestante, Windham assistant superintendent, oversees 16 prison schools in the Gulf Coast region, including the Clemens school. She points out, "These young offenders, even if they are dropouts, are still close enough to their school experience to remember the drill, and their minds are very quick."

Benestante, a public school superintendent prior to joining Windham, says there are several keys to the success of literacy training in the Youthful Offender Program. They include more staff development for teachers, tailoring some course work to fit the age bracket and providing what she calls "more things" than most prison schools get, such as interactive instructional technology and enhanced instructional resources, such as an interactive globe to assist with studying geography and world events.

Therapeutic community students receive six hours of schooling per day, while sheltered housing offenders receive the same three hours a day provided in all other prison schools. Windham officials say that offenders entering prison younger than 17 have an average educational achievement score at intake of 5.7 compared with a 6.6 average for the general prison population at intake. But officials also say that Youthful Offender Program students tend to show more progress in less time than general population students in grade level advancement.

The Windham curriculum at Clemens includes individualized, competency-based instruction in literacy, special education classes for students with learning disabilities and supplemental classes heavily laden with interactive multimedia aids for students with deficiencies in reading and math. In the last year, 23 offenders obtained their GEDs.

Benestante notes that the youthful offender education program has to work around the same problem Windham faces in adult prisons. The major problem is class time missed by offenders. Certain offenders may be restricted to their housing area because of individual discipline violations. Sometimes, the entire group may be confined to housing because the group is being held responsible as peers for such problems as a fight egged on by bystanders or contraband being found in a common area.

Windham also offers career guidance and technology education, including hands-on programs in automotive specialization, business support systems, computer maintenance, construction carpentry and pipe trades/plumbing. Satisfactory completion of these courses earns the student a vocational certificate or license.

The Windham program receives its basic financing from the Texas Education Agency, based on teacher and student hours actually spent in the classroom. It also receives important supplementation from a series of federal grants, just as public schools do. For those who qualify, nearby Alvin Community College services the Clemens Unit with college courses at no cost to Youthful Offender Program participants, thanks to a federal grant.

Some parts of the daily regimen for the youthful offenders are not unlike life for many teen-agers with parental supervision--except that the morning wake-up call is at 4 am. Eating breakfast is mandatory, a rule not found in any other prison. The unique nutritional needs of adolescents are reflected in an extra sandwich and milk at each meal.

Recreation and television in the evening is not guaranteed; it is a privilege to be earned by the whole group or a sanction to be applied to the group. Recreational activities are structured games with a definite teaching purpose of learning and obeying rules. Therapeutic community offenders are given the relative freedom of being housed in 40-bed dorms, while the sheltered housing offenders live in the more restrictive setting of two-person cells that are four tiers high.

Not counting the Windham education staff, today, the Youthful Offender Program operates with Coates, nine counselors and a specially trained security captain. The program's budget this year is a little more than $200,000 (not including allocations for employee benefits and unit overhead).

Successful Results

Is the Youthful Offender Program achieving its goal? Prison officials emphatically answer, "Yes." Officials say it is too early to track recidivism on those who have gone through the program and have subsequently been released, even on those who might have been back on the streets for three years. Coates contends that meaningful recidivism can be tracked only when graduates of the new program, as reconfigured in 2000, have been out for three years.

But there are measures inside the prison that Coates says are valid gauges of the program's success. She points to the disciplinary records of the therapeutic commmunity students compared with the sheltered housing group. During the past year, 74 therapeutic community participants saw a combined 160 good time day credits taken away in disciplinary sanctions. The sheltered housing group of 144 lost 5,890. That is 2.1 days per capita in the therapeutic community versus 40.9 days in sheltered housing.

During the first seven months of TDCJ's current fiscal year, the therapeutic community saw 36 major disciplinary cases, while sheltered housing had 217 cases, or triple the per capita number. In the same seven months, sheltered housing lost seven participants to administrative segregation, while the therapeutic community lost none. The therapeutic community saw one major use of force incident while sheltered housing had 38.

The comparative figures are a good assessment of the success of the therapeutic community in its placement process, its use of peer pressure and its emphasis on cognitive intervention, Coates says, but the combined figures of both groups underscore the importance of separating youthful offenders from the older general population. "I think you can look at the disciplinary and use of force numbers and safely say that had these young people been in other units, they would have involved themselves in the same number or more of problems, but the consequences Would have been much more dangerous to them and to the staff," she says.

Johnson agrees: "The self-control these people can learn among their peers would have eluded them for three or four years until they learned the hard way had they been put in with older inmates, and that would present a danger for inmates and staff alike," he says.

Coates also keeps up with members of both groups after they finish either the therapeutic community program or reach their 20th birthday in sheltered housing and are placed into the general population at Clemens, where they will likely stay for two to three years before being moved to other units. She admits that her tracking of these offenders is largely anecdotal once they leave the program, but in a small unit such as Clemens, it is possible to keep up with them--especially if one gets in trouble--and Coates likes what she sees and hears about her "graduates."

But while Coates and TDCJ administration are convinced that the Youthful Offender Program is working well, they want to advance the program to a new level by improving the continuum of care for those serving short sentences who get released directly back to the community. While the last eight Weeks of the program heavily stress preparation for re-entry to the free world, Coates says something more is needed, both for the offender's good and for the interests of public safety. "With more than half of these offenders serving sentences of 10 years or less and with an overall average sentence length of little more than five years, many of them leave here on discharge, meaning they don't even get standard parole supervision when they get out," she says. "So they are going home still at a very young and very dangerous age."

Toward that goal, Coates is enlisting the help and input of community resources, particularly in Harris County (Houston), which certifies more juveniles than all other counties combined. She says her initial contacts with local public agencies have been promising. Several community service agencies have been receptive to a program of meeting with the young offenders as often as once per week for six months prior to their release to identify individual needs and connect offenders with resources to meet those needs, Coates says.

TDCJ officials are pleased with the Youthful Offender Program and are convinced that its benefits are many. Johnson sums up his assessment: "While youthful offenders are a small group population-wise, there can be no question of the program's value. First, segregation of the young offenders keeps them safe from potential predatory violence from older inmates. For those who will be staying with us on longer sentences, this program helps prepare them to cope with the adult system when they turn 21. Finally, for those who go back to their communities while they are still under 21, this program is the best chance they will ever have to learn how and why to change their lives by changing their mental processes."

Glen Castlebury is public information officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
COPYRIGHT 2002 American Correctional Association, Inc.
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Author:Castlebury, Glen
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Oct 1, 2002
Words:3473
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