Q&A: Texas Youth Commissioner Cherie Townsend


It's been a long two years for the Texas Youth Commission. Pick a bad thing that happens in JJ and it has happened: physical and sexual abuse of youth, staff with criminal records, bad  contracts, and large lawsuits. Add in the three conservators and two executive directors TYC has employed in the last two years, and running TYC is about attractive as the top job in D.C. child welfare or head of ground operations in Iraq.

UPDATE, Nov. 12:
Things just got even more interesting at TYC. A commission assigned to review the agency has recommended that TYC and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission (which distributes money to counties to handle the 95 percent of juveniles who do not end up at TYC) merge into one juvenile justice entity. The report can be found here; joint statement against the proposal from Townsend and TJPC Commissioner Vicki Spriggs here; initial report on Grits for Breakfast here.

And yet somehow, the state lured a highly credentialed candidate. Cherie Townsend, who has experience running large county JJ operations, and spent much of her early career at TYC. Townsend has the respect of reform-minded folks; a mention of her new post at this year's JDAI Conference in Indianapolis prompted a long ovation; she wasn't even there!

Of course, for anything related to Texas JJ, you would be remiss not to surf the contributions on the incredible Grits for Breakfast blog, written by Scott Henson in Austin. His readers include people inside the agency and other justice leadership in the state, so the observations in his comments section (mostly anonymous) are often as thoughtful as Henson's own analysis.

A sampling of opinion on Townsend (and her new task) thus far:

*"She may know the ends and outs, and be very dedicated to making this a new and improved agency, but the fact of the matter is, she does not have people surrounding her that have the knowledge, skills, or abilities to make TYC what it needs to be. She needs to go back and look at some of those professionals that have left or were forced to leave in the past two years and see if any of them are worth bringing back."

 *"Ms. Townsend needs to clean out all the replants from other states that were supposed to be helpful to TYC but instead have done a good job of bringing it down more."

 *"Cherie is a leader, an innovative administrator, and a dedicated public servant. The State of Texas is indeed fortunate to have a person of her caliber take command of the Texas Youth Commission. My late father, who chaired the Texas Youth Commission during a much better time in the agency's history, would have praised Governor Perry for this appointment."

 *"Here we go again, another Arizona transplant."

 *"I believe I also read that Cherie also serves as a Director on the [American Correctional Association] Accreditation Board. Since TYC is going to again become involved with ACA, this will certainly help."

We wanted Townsend's own assessment of the job, so we sent her a few questions during her first month:

JJ Today: More than one person we've talked to described the TYC job as something they wouldn't wish on their worst enemy. Why did you decide to take it, what or who sold you on the job?

Townsend: The deciding factor in my accepting this position was the support that I found for reform of the juvenile justice system in Texas. This support comes from Governor Perry, legislative leadership, stakeholders, advocacy groups, employees and families. While there is a lot of work to be done, there is also the will to do it.

JJ Today: What would you say are the three most urgent things to address/change at TYC?

Townsend: There are a number of issues that I am currently addressing at TYC. The highest priority for me right now is to make certain that we are taking care of the basics and that youth and staff are safe. Secondly, we are developing a regional service delivery plan that addresses the elements of restorative justice and evidence-based program models for youth in the juvenile justice system. We will have to then align our resources with that plan. Finally, I'm focusing on communication, collaboration and credibility. These three things are really the cornerstones for changing our culture, improving internal and external systems coordination, and people having confidence that we are able to and will produce better outcomes with youth.   

JJ Today:  What do you feel has been your crowning achievement in juvenile justice work, what you're most proud of?

Townsend: I have had the opportunity to do a lot of exciting work in juvenile justice systems in three different states. I have been very fortunate to work with dedicated, experienced, and creative people and accomplish some very significant reforms. One of the most exciting opportunities I had was to work in Clark County, Nev., which is a JDAI replication site. We were able to close a detention unit, establish alternatives to detention, start a Girls' Initiative, and begin a community effort to reduce racial disparities in our system. Additionally, while I was at Maricopa County, Arizona, I had the opportunity to work with the courts, the county and the community to start an investment in early intervention and prevention efforts in targeted communities. The first year of the prevention initiative, the county budget staff estimated that our results generated $6 million in cost avoidance for juvenile justice system costs.

JJ Today:  What do you think your biggest learning curve will be, the facet of your new job that is most unfamiliar to you right now?

Townsend: The biggest learning curve that I have is catching up on twelve years of change in the juvenile justice system in Texas. It is important for me to learn about TYC, the skills and knowledge of TYC employees, and the resources available within this agency. But, I also have to learn about what is taking place in all the counties, with private providers and with advocacy organizations. This learning curve is made steeper by the start of the legislative session in January 2009.

JJ Today:  You are well-regarded among JDAI people for your work in Clark County. Given that detention has been shown to increase likelihood of incarceration, will you push for Texas to undertake a larger replication of the initiative, which is currently in Dallas and Houston?

Townsend: My primary focus will be on the transformation of TYC and its role in the juvenile justice system. I am confident that during the 2009 legislative session there will be opportunities to discuss juvenile detention reform in Texas and will make legislators aware of the benefits I see in a larger replication of JDAI.

JJ Today:  The Texas legislature will begin a "Sunset" review of TYC's value in the upcoming year, a process in Texas that often approves programs/agencies for continuation but sometimes recommends closure. Have officials given you a sense that, considering TYC's past problems, there is a chance you are signing on to a commission that won't exist in the near future?

Townsend: There continues to be substantial support for the reform and improvement of TYC operations and outcomes. While there is discussion and differences of opinion about how this can best occur, I am staying focused on the reform of TYC.

JJ Today:  There is a daily website that rigorously covers TYC, Grits for Breakfast. Do you read it, any thoughts on it?

Townsend: I do read the posts on Grits for Breakfast. It is an interesting site that looks at a wide range of criminal justice issues. However, I don't read the anonymous comments because they are often personal and do not contribute to a real dialogue on the issues. I also regularly read a number of other websites that focus on juvenile justice, positive youth development, organizational change, criminal justice, leadership and character.