President's Column
May-June 2007

TYC and prosecutor responsibility

David Williams

County Attorney in San Saba County

It started in December 2006 with a Public Information Act request to the Texas Youth Commission seeking data about reports of abuse and neglect at TYC. TYC’s response: “Between 2000 and 2006, law enforcement was notified 6,652 times of reported abuse or neglect and 6,634 times chose not to participate.”

That succinctly worded—and misleadingly simple—message touched off a firestorm of criticism of local law enforcement and prosecutors when it was repeated by legislators and the media in February. We all know the story by now:  Accusations of sexual abuse of the kids at the TYC facility in Ward County and no action from the local prosecutor led to Governor Rick Perry putting TYC into conservatorship and sparked a major league game of “who knew what when.”

We now know that TYC’s response was downright deceptive because law enforcement and prosecutors did not get reports of abuse as they should. When they did receive word of abuse, those cases were investigated and prosecuted. It took the efforts of several prosecutors with TYC facilities in their jurisdictions multiple days of meetings with legislators to correct the false impression left in the wake of that TYC e-mail.

By the time you read this column, the legislature will have probably figured out what to do about prosecuting crimes at TYC facilities. But this latest dust-up over prosecutorial duties is just another verse to a song that lawmakers have been singing the last few years. The title is something like: “How Do We Control Our Prosecutors and Make Them do a Great and Timely Job (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah).”

My first reminder to our leaders and to those in our profession is the foundation of our jobs: independence. It’s no mistake that Texas prosecutors, all 327 of us, are constitutional officers who answer to the people through the power of their vote. That means that from time to time, cases won’t go the way some people want them to, but in the big picture, that is better than the alternative. We need only look at the flap over the Department of Justice’s firing of United States Attorneys to appreciate the downside of centralized criminal prosecution.

But being independent does not mean we are unaccountable to our state’s leaders. If a prosecutor falls down on the job, our state leaders have the right to ask how that can be prevented in the future. I was proud that the Board of Directors of the Special Prosecution Unit—district attorneys in jurisdictions with TDCJ units—offered to take direct responsibility for the quality of prosecution in TYC units while staying connected with state government. I’ve never known a time when prosecutors would not answer the call of a state leader to work through an important issue to the state.

As a profession, we also have a greater responsibility than just to the citizens in our districts. We all answer ready for the State of Texas, so we should do our part to help our neighbors when they need it. You will soon hear much more about your association’s work to create a centralized special prosecutor bank, which is a list of names of prosecutors available to assist with cases when they’re needed. After all, who better to handle criminal cases than a Texas prosecutor? Many of you already work together and swap cases to make sure the people are well-represented, so this special-prosecutor bank is not a new concept. Organized on a state-wide scale, it would be an important resource for all prosecutors and another means for you to carry out your responsibilities to the people of Texas.