DALLAS - About 10 months after scandal rocked the troubled Texas Youth Commission, the pace of reforms that were supposed to straighten out the agency remains in question.

New programs were ordered by the Legislature, along with new managers. But Jon Halt says the commission still has a big problem: “They still treat kids like dirt.”

Halt, whose teenage son was sexually assaulted by another inmate in a state juvenile prison, belongs to a watchdog group formed by other inmate families after this year’s scandal.

“If there’s any improvement at TYC, it’s very minute, as far as I can see,” he said in Sunday editions of The Dallas Morning News.

The official assessment is far more positive. “I’m going to say excellent,” said Dimitria Pope, TYC’s acting executive director, when asked to gauge the agency’s progress.

February reports by The News and the Web site of The Texas Observer revealed that officials at a West Texas youth prison had been accused of sexually abusing inmates.

Continued revelations this year produced one outrage after another, including youth beatings, lax medical care and a culture of retaliation against whistleblowers. Legislation passed in May was supposed to address the problems.

To some extent, the legislation did fix problems: “We probably don’t have management raping kids now,” said Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano.

Madden, who sponsored the reform bill, cited several other benefits: Youths who commit misdemeanors are no longer sent to TYC. Also, an independent ombudsman has hired staff, new guards are getting more training.

Meanwhile, a stronger internal investigations unit has pursued dozens of cases of TYC employee misconduct.

“I’m beginning to have a little confidence that improvements are being made,” he said. “But we need to see results.”

But some believe the state juvenile prison system is locked into an outmoded model based on punishment dealt from large, remote prisons.

“The way they’re going, a correctional model, is a dead loser,” said Dr. Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “That’s not going to get them anyplace. It’s never gotten anyone anyplace, except court.”

Krisberg was part of a TYC-appointed task force that produced a report that the agency rejected this year. The task force advocated a “home-like environment” for inmates, among other things.

“The question is,” he said, “is Texas going to tolerate being the embarrassment of the nation on this?”

Inmate abuse allegations have risen, staffing shortages persist and the controversy remains over the use of pepper spray on juveniles.

The use of pepper spray on inmates rose from 18 times in December 2006 to a peak of 175 occurrences in August 2007. Juvenile justice advocates accuse TYC of using pepper spray to cover staff shortages and other problems.

Despite legal action and bitter complaints, Pope said she has no regrets concerning regarding the use of pepper spray. Too many inmates and correctional officers were being injured during physical restraints, she said. “It wasn’t just, ‘Hey, let’s just go gas these kids.’ “

In some respects, the agency seems better off, said David Springer, chairman of the advisory task force.

“In other regards, I think the agency has taken a step back.”

Springer, who teaches in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, said TYC may not be able to fix itself.

“It’s an uphill battle,” he said, “that I’m not sure can be climbed.”

Cornyn files candidacy papers, prepares to defend Senate seat


AP Political Writer

AUSTIN - Republican Sen. John Cornyn stepped into election season Saturday, filing his candidacy for Texas’ GOP primary and preparing for what could become a contentious general election battle in 2008.

“There’s a lot at stake, for this generation and others, to make sure that we keep the promises that we have made, the commitments we have made for a better life for all Americans,” Cornyn said, surrounded by a large group of supporters.

He said the United States needs to fix its “broken immigration system,” and he predicted the war in Iraq will be a dominant issue in next year’s election. Cornyn defended the position he has taken backing President Bush on the war.

“I think it’s wrong to say that we ought to just pull the covers over our head and hope the threat goes away,” he said.

Cornyn presented his candidate paperwork for the March 4 primary at the Republican Party of Texas headquarters, alongside Railroad Commission Chairman Michael Williams. As he introduced Cornyn, Williams inadvertently said Cornyn “now serves us as a member of the United States Supreme Court,” before correcting himself.

“We’re going to give him that one, too,” Williams quipped, chuckling about his mistake.

Cornyn once served on the Texas Supreme Court and was Texas attorney general before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2002. He began his career in elected office as a state district judge in Bexar County.

Consultant Larry Kilgore also is running in the Republican primary against Cornyn.

The winner will face the Democratic nominee. State Rep. Rick Noriega and teacher Ray McMurrey are in that race.

Noriega, when he filed his candidacy nearly two weeks ago, pelted Cornyn with criticism, saying he’s a “show horse” who takes one stand in Washington on issues such as immigration and children’s health insurance then comes to Texas for photo opportunities to try to cast himself in a different light.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a show horse,” Cornyn said, responding Saturday to a question about Noriega’s remark. “I think most of my friends and people who know me will say I tend to be more a work horse rather than a show horse.”

Cornyn didn’t dive into any criticism of Noriega. He said he’s concentrating on winning his own party’s primary while the Democrats hold theirs.

“No one is going to be handed those nominations on a platter. We’re going to have to run for them, and there will be plenty of time for me to talk to whoever the Democratic nominee is when they win that primary,” he said. “We’ve all got to earn it.”

Some polls have shown Cornyn to be vulnerable, but he said his own polling shows “we’re doing just fine.”

Cornyn not only has the advantage of incumbency, but he’s the leader in money-raising. As of last month, Cornyn had about $6.6 million in the bank. Noriega, the biggest-name Democrat running, had $510,000.

Cornyn said he favors keeping taxes low and government small. He warned against what he said are the dangers of turning the health care system over the federal government, which he said would make it an expensive and bureaucratic system.

He said he wants to make private health insurance more accessible and portable from job to job.

The immigration system needs fixing, he said, so that and some people don’t jump in line ahead of others who are trying to legally come into the country. He said the rule of law has to be respected.

“That protects all of us regardless of where we come from or how we pronounce our last name,” he said.

As for the Iraq war, Cornyn said Bush’s troop surge plan is working.

“Some of the people who thought that the surge was lost or the war was lost have been proven wrong,” he said. “They voted against our men and women in the military, and that’s always a bad bet.”

He said during his re-election bid he will continue “to point out why our national security depends on eliminating the threat of Islamic extremists and denying them safe havens in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where they can organize, train, finance their efforts and then export attacks against us here at home.”

DA Ronnie Earle says he won’t seek re-election


AP Political Writer

AUSTIN - Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle said Friday he won’t seek re-election next year, bringing an end to a three-decade reign in which he battled some of the biggest names in Texas politics.

The 65-year-old Earle, who’s led a criminal investigation of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his associates, told his staff of his decision then announced it to the public.

“I want to thank the people of Travis County for entrusting me with the responsibility of this office to see that justice is done. At the end of my term we will have had a 32-year partnership, because doing justice is the job of the community itself,” Earle said.

One year remains in his current term.

The Democrat has been criticized by DeLay and other Republicans who say his prosecutions of elected leaders are politically motivated. Earle points out that he prosecutes Democrats as well as Republicans.

Earle had to decide whether to run again before Jan. 2, the end of the candidate filing period for the March 4 state primaries.

Earle considered not running for re-election in 2004, but the DeLay investigation centering on campaign spending in 2002 legislative races took off. He said the case was one of the most important of his career and he couldn’t abandon it.

DeLay and two Republican fundraisers who were indicted with him still are awaiting trial in Travis County on charges of money laundering and conspiring to launder money. Earle’s office lost its appeal earlier this year to have another charge of conspiracy to violate the election code reinstated against the three men.

While Earle didn’t mention the DeLay case by name in announcing he was leaving office, he seemed to allude to it.

“There are particular cases pending that are enormously important to this state, this country, and democracy itself. If they are not resolved during the forthcoming last year of my term I will offer my assistance on those matters on a pro bono basis to my successor,” Earle said in his prepared statement.

DeLay spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty said Earle “never had any intention of finishing off his revenge on Tom DeLay” and is afraid of being disgraced while in office.

“This is a no-brainer for him,” she said. “Good riddance to another corrupt DA.”

Texas Republican Party spokesman Hans Klingler said, “All politicians have to battle when it is time to stay and when it is time to go; in this instance we are glad ‘go’ won the battle.”

Texas Democrats defended Earle as a fair prosecutor.

“Voters returned Ronnie Earle to office time and again because he conducted his office with fairness and integrity. Ronnie Earle wasn’t intimated by political bullies and treated Republicans and Democrats alike without regard to politics or ideology,” said Texas Democratic Party spokeswoman Amber Moon.

Earle tried to prosecute U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 1994, but he dropped the case during trial. Hutchison was acquitted of official misconduct and record tampering charges connected to her term as state treasurer.

Some Democrats who were prosecuted by Earle and his Public Integrity Unit — not always successfully — were former Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis, former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox, former State Treasurer Warren Harding and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Yarbrough.

In some circles, Earle has been mentioned as a possible candidate for higher office, like governor in 2010. He didn’t offer any details Friday.

“I look forward to whatever the future may bring,” he said. “I have no specific plans, other than to not go gently into that good night.”

Supporters of presidential hopeful Ron Paul launch blimp in NC


RALEIGH, N.C. - A 200-foot long blimp bearing the name of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul is flying over North Carolina.

Spokesman Bryce Henderson said the blimp took off from Elizabeth City just before 9 a.m. It’s expected to fly over Raleigh and Greensboro in the afternoon, and over Charlotte just before nightfall.

The aerial billboard is emblazoned on one side with “Who is Ron Paul? Google Ron Paul.” The other side reads “Ron Paul Revolution.”

The blimp is being paid for by supporters who aren’t officially connected to Paul’s campaign. The blimp is scheduled to float up the East Coast past major cities.

Paul is a Texas congressman and former Libertarian who stands apart from the other GOP presidential contenders by opposing the Iraq war. He has low poll numbers but soaring support among anti-government voters on the Internet.