Texas' juvenile prisons need $1.6 million fix

The state's case management system has been creating unreliable data reports since January 2016

By Lauren McGaughy
The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN, Tex. — Texas has been running its juvenile prisons for years while relying on inaccurate data about treatment costs, staffing ratios and reincarceration rates — and the fix is estimated to cost $1.6 million.

The Texas Department of Juvenile Justice's fragile and outmoded case management system has been spitting out unreliable data reports since January 2016, forcing staff to use faulty information to measure performance and make important decisions about kids behind bars, according to a new state audit obtained by The Dallas Morning News.

The Texas Department of Juvenile Justice developed its case management system in-house more than a quarter century ago.
The Texas Department of Juvenile Justice developed its case management system in-house more than a quarter century ago.

But the department was unable to secure funds for a replacement system until earlier this year, when Gov. Greg Abbott shook up the agency's leadership in the wake of a sex scandal between kids and guards. On Jan. 26, just weeks after she took over the agency, Executive Director Camille Cain asked for additional cash to purchase a new data system.

"She came to learn that we were having very serious issues with this that were leading to errors," Communications Director Brian Sweany said in an interview with The News. "Not only is this outdated, but it's causing problems — problems that we can't accept as an agency."

It will take several years to choose a vendor and implement the new system. In the meantime, Sweany said the department will continue to operate its halfway houses and five secure state-run juvenile prisons by "doing the very best that we can do to validate that information on the front end."

We're "figuring out where we do have disparities in the data," he added, and "moving forward with the best speed."

What happened?

The Texas Department of Juvenile Justice developed its case management system in-house more than a quarter century ago. Then, in January 2016, the department tried to update the system — which tracks the progress of kids the state keeps behind bars — so it could better monitor juveniles who've been incarcerated multiple times.

But the update didn't sync with the department's antiquated tool, and, soon enough, key data was compromised. Under Cain's predecessor, the department asked for $2.6 million for a new case management system in 2016, but state lawmakers did not approve their request. 

The department also tried to repair the system at least three times before May 2017, the State Auditor's Office review said, but was unable to figure out a fix. As a result, auditors said the department has reported "unreliable" performance measures in eight key areas including population, reincarceration rate and daily mental and physical health care costs.

"The data accuracy and completeness issues identified increase the risk that the Department could make decisions related to youth based on inaccurate or incomplete information," the auditors said. 

As data issues were playing out behind the scenes, The News was reporting on physical violence and sexual abuse at the state's largest juvenile facility in Gainesville. A correctional officer was impregnated by a juvenile offender and multiple other guards saw criminal charges for neglect and abuse. 

Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Texas Rangers to investigate, installed Cain and replaced several other key officials. She's focused on lowering the offender population in the short term and shifting to a trauma-based intervention system in the long term. 

Soon after she joined the agency, Cain also asked for $1.8 million to replace the outdated data system. 

"Over time, the system has become increasingly fragile, while there exist fewer and fewer potential employees or contractors that can work in this language to maintain or update it," Cain said in her Jan. 26 letter to the Legislative Budget Board. "In order to continue mandatory reporting, considerable staff time is required to 'clean' even basic youth data. As time elapses the quality and accuracy of TJJD's reporting of state residential system data will continue to erode."

In April, the Legislative Budget Board approved $1.6 million.

What happens now?

The department has agreed with all the auditors' findings. It will begin a review of its data on Sept. 1, which will be completed by July 2019. It plans to choose and implement its new case management system by May 2020. A vendor has not yet been chosen.

Sweany, who also joined the department this year, acknowledged the data issues are unacceptable and untenable. But he insisted they were limited to just those juveniles who "had touched our system multiple times over the years."

"We believe it was limited to a very small group of our population," Sweany said, who said that out of 705 kids who came into the state system last year, just 16 were classified as "multiple commitment" offenders.

Reports earlier this year that the department's population had dropped to its lowest level in decades are still accurate, Sweany said, because average daily population data has been double checked by staffers who have been working to "clean" the data since 2016.

This week, the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice will submit its biennual budget request ahead of the 2019 legislative session. Sweany said the data problems will not affect the budget writing process, although the department may need to ask for more funding in the future for its maintenance.

No one has been fired due to the problems with the agency's database, Sweany said. But he confirmed that chief information officer Jim Southwell recently announced his retirement.

©2018 The Dallas Morning News

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