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Everyone who goes to criminal court encounters a prosecutor These individuals have a tremendous amount of power. It is up to them how to charge an individual arrested for law breaking. Since the District Attorney is often elected, their decisions are sometimes based on the political ramifications of what they decide. If they happen to have an old school “tough on crime” attitude, they may well “throw the book” at those who stand before them. If they live in a rural county as opposed to an urban county they may well charge differently, and request longer sentences than if they were working in an urban center. Teir decisions migt also be impacted by the quality of the defense attorney. The majority of folks in criminal court are less educated and less economically advantaged. Usually that means they cannot afford the highest quality defense and thus usually get more harsh treatment than that secured by a high caliber legal defense team.

Fortunately, we now appear to be entring a time when more and more prosecutors are starting to think outside the box. That means that they are not so beholden to tradition… the strategies of being as harsh as possible, and thus filling our prisons with more than they can, or should hold. Some of them are now beginning to look at the individual circumstances of each case and making decisions accordingly, instead of using a broad brush, less personal approach. So there is real reason for hope. The “one size fits all” approach has been tried for decades. Available evidence shows that the results do not justify that philosphy. When individuals are labeled, and put into categories, the dehumanization process begins. Once they are sent to prison, that process acclerates and the result is recidivism rates that harm communities and have too high a price tag.

The video attached here is by a prosecutor who points out how others like him can use creativity to maximize positive outcomes. This works especially well with teenagers.

Teen Turns Into Adult at 18?

Laws in most states grant adult rights to teenagers when they turn 18, and/or 21. These laws were not just carelessly fashioned but were based on observations of teenage behavior. The general thinking was that an immature person is not an adult and thus not able to make the decisions that adults make. Apparently there was general agreement that both 18 and 21 seemed like ages at which good decision making was possible. This was not based so much on science as it was general consensus. Accordingly teenagers were granted adult rights at age 18, although some rights, like buying alchohol were delayed to age 21.

However, an exception was made when the teenager got involved with the legal system.  There, children as young as 14 (sometimes younger) have been treated as adults if charged with a serious crime. This change stemmed largley from fear about a surge of “super predators in the 90’s. So while an “underage” youth had no adult rights, the legal system had the right to treat him/her as an adult if the prosecutor so chooses. Many thousands of juveniles were convicted of crimes as adults and sentenced to long terms in adult prisons. Over the subsequent years more and more states began changing the laws to “raise the Age” of adult responsibility to 18. These changes were no longer based merely on popular thinking, but on advances in neuroscience. Research in that area has proven that teen brains are still very much in the developmental stage……in fact, it is now commonly accepted that full brain maturity does not occur till the early to mid twenties. Accordingly, some states are re-visiting their laws, to more appropriately tailor their responses to youthful illegal behavior.

Texas is an outlier when it comes to such evidence based change. It is one of just six states that still keeps the option of treating 17 year olds as adults. In the 85th legislative session this year, efforts to “Raise the Age” to 18 failed. Also killed was a bill to permit first parole review after 20 years for prisoners sentenced as teenagers. Evidence based change will come to Texas. But like any change in the area of criminal justice, it will be slow.

Punishment Is Not The Answer

Prisons have, for centuries focused on punishment, security and control. The effectiveness of this well worn approach can be seen in recidivism rates. They range from 25% to 75%. If a private business had such product failure rates they would go bankrupt. Prisons, however, are mostly publicly funded institutions, and as such are immune from  the accountability requirements of the private sector. Thus, a high recidivism rate does not prompt prison administrators, or the politicians who fund them, to examine what they are doing wrong and fix things. Instead, taxpayer money keeps getting poured into a system that fails far too often.

Many European countries have prison systems that operate according to belief in rehabilitation. They realize that punishment does not achieve the objective of preparing those sent to prison for a successful life upon release. That realization prompted them to design their systems to move way beyond punishment and make significant efforts to deal with the problems inmates bring with them to prison.  Unlike American prisons, they offer a lot more freedom and opportunity for personal growth. They understand the huge importance of prisoners maintaining family connections and offer opportunities to strengthen and develop those connections. Their systems are designed to more closely mirror real life, yet with the restrictions prisons need to have. The expected result is that their prisons are safer for inmates and staff and that fewer numbers of those released come back. It is apparent that underlying their systems is a belief that people can change. They do not claim that those convicted of crimes are disposable, or less than those not caught in criminal activity. These are ideas that, one day will be incorporated into American criminal justice.

North Dakota is leading the way in introducing Norway style reforms into their system. It’s probably easier there due to the small size of their prison population, but it is a significant and needed change of direction that merits following.

North Dakota’s Norway Experiment

North Dakota’s Norway Experiment


We don’t need prisons that function as schools for criminal behavior.
We don’t need to be locking up people who are not a threat to public safety.
We don’t need to have social safety nets that leave kids behind to grow into criminals
We don’t need laws that criminalize private behavior that has no victims.
Yet, we have all those things. Alongside that there is a strong reluctance, on the part of those with authority, to show the leadership required to change things as they are. Every two years elected representatives arrive in Austin and enact new laws, change existing ones, and, not often enough, get rid of laws that don’t need to be on the books.
When these folks look at criminal justice issues, their risk averseness , rises considerably. Instead of following the advise of Sam Houston, (” Do right and risk the consequences) they are content with minor tweaks to a system that has long needed major overhaul. Their’s is no easy job when it comes to dealing with people who break the law. Many of them are trained lawyers and businessmen/women, not human service professionals. They make, and maintain, the rules that govern Texas criminal justice. Without the expertise and experience of assisting dysfunctional individuals to inform their decisions, they rely, far too often, on guidance from their respective political parties, those who fund their campaigns, a select group of “experts” and their concerns about elections.
The success of their decision making can be seen in the evidence. It shows that taxpayers are currently subsidizing a system that locks up too many, for too long, at too great a cost. That cost extends far beyond the tax dollars. It includes the cost to the families left behind when one of them goes to prison. Back in 2007 the cost of new prisons was avoided by bi-partisan reforms that increased the emphasis on substance abuse treatment and community supervision. Partly due to that, Texas has, what some consider to be, a fairly low recidivism rate. However, if you had a business and 25 % of your products were returned as defective…..changes would be required, because that’s where the profit is. The State, however, is not a private business and is thus exempt from the accountability measures that dictate the success or failure of a private business.
So, strictly from a business perspective, our prison system needs changes so that the recidivism rate is greatly diminished. Every return costs taxpayer money. Taxpayers have a right to insist on tax funded systems that are effective and efficient. In terms of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the road to transformation is implied in its mission statement.
“The mission of TDCJ is to provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, re-integrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime.”
What it does not mention, and needs to be included, is promoting programs that narrow down the school to prison pipeline. But that is a subject for another time. What can be done now is to compare how TDCJ operates and see how that fits with the mission statement. Anything that does not support the mission needs changing, or elimination.
Tackling a job this huge cannot be left solely to the folks at the capitol………….that would be like asking the police to investigate themselves. What is needed is the informed input of experts like doctors, pyschiatrists psychologists, ministers, criminal justice experts of all kinds, businessmen, victims and prisoners, past and present, etc.
For years now, the Austin criminal justice think tank, Right on Crime has been advocating, in other states, a process called Justice Re-Investment Initiative. Basically it calls for a top to bottom review of how tax money is spent in the criminal justice system. The objective is to maximize the potential and minimize the cost of current programs. With all the interest in making America great ………let’s put Texas absolutely in the forefront regarding criminal justice reform. Texas has all the resources needed to make this state number one in terms of a common sense, evidence based, transformation of how we deal with lawbreakers.

Juveniles in Prison and the 85th Texas Legislature

Before the session began there was hope among prisoners, sentenced as juveniles, that bills might pass that would give them a Second Look after 20 years. Proponents of reform outside prison did all they could to encourage legislators to make change happen. All were disappointed, but not necessarily surprised, when none of the bills made it to a floor vote. With the emphasis now shifting to the next session, much needs to be done in the interim. Here’s a message posted on facebook about that very subject:

Once again Texas lawmakers have shown their addiction to incremental change in terms of how to more effectively deal with lawbreakers. The challenge before us now is to create and implement strategies that will encourage them to actually make change happen next session.
At the same time, not all changes require the legislature to act. Executive and administrative changes can be made that don’t require politicians….but they do require sustained and massive pressure from voters who pay the salaries the salaries of TDCJ employees. It is thus clear to me that we need to advocate for change in multiple ways.
In keeping with that, here are some thoughts that come to mind. In view of the immensity of the challenge, more thoughts will follow and current thougths will be refined.
1. The base needs to be dramatically expanded. TIFA and Epicenter need a much larger membership in order to have a more effective voice. With 70,000 people cycling in and out of TDCJ every year, the number of potential advocates for change is huge. The question is how to get more folks involved.
2. Lawmakers in every part of the State need to hear from the voters in their districts on a regular basis about reforms that are clearly identified. At this point, Raise the Age and Second Look are the obvious ones. Work time credit for 3g individuals is another one.
3. Efforts to get mainstream media coverage need to be ongoing and Statewide. This is to address the education deficit that most voters have when it comes to not knowing how their tax money is being wasted keeping too many locked up, for too long.
4. TDCJ needs to be lobbied to implement some of the institutional changes outlined in the “Responsible Prison Project”……an analysis of present prison conditions with recommendations for change….created by five “lifers” who are all students in the seminary program at the Darrington Unit.

No Mercy for Texas Juveniles Sent to Prison

 With the 85th session of the Texas legislature almost in the history books, there is no good news about juveniles sent to adult prisons. A variety of bills were filed from HB 122 to Raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 to HB 1274 and SB 556 that were designed to give those sentenced as juveniles to long sentences a Second Look after 20 years. All these bills had some bi-partisan support and none of them got to the point of a vote in either the house or the senate.
Texas is one of six states that have yet to Raise the Age. Every two years attempt are made to make this change. Every time evidence from around the country is offered in support of the moral, financial, and public safety reasons to pass this common sense legislation. For reasons unknown to this writer, it sits on the backburner.
The Second Look bills are supported by Supreme Court rulings, neuroscience , basic common sense, as well as religious teachings about forgiveness and redemption. None of this makes any differences when it comes to politics. The way the system works, one person in the legislature, or one outside protest, can prevent a practical, sensible, widely supported bill, head to the trash bin. Advocates state that at least one of the bills moved out of committee and almost made it to a vote. In my book that is extremely small “progress”. A look at legislative action on criminal justice matters reveals a pattern of inadequate bills and snail paced change. In Texas, elected officials seem more concerned with who uses what bathroom and similar matters that reflect the personal preferences of the officials as opposed to the will of the voters. Polls by Right on Crime have shown that voters want more reform than politicians are willing to propose.
Conclusion: A new strategy to achieve transformation of the existing criminal justice system is needed. The “nibbling at the edges” approach preferred by legislators has no chance of bringing about changes that actually achieve the stated objectives of the system. More on that later.



Twenty years ago, Aaron Dyson, having just turned seventeen made a mistake that would dictate the rest of his life. His life long friend was murdered over a clash about a girl. The murderer was arrested and Aaron spent the subsequent months clipping all newspaper articles about the crime and legal aftermath….he was having trouble accepting the murder of his best friend. His difficulty dealing with such a loss was noted by his grandmother and parents. They talked with him about it, but, in typical teenage male fashion, he was convinced he could deal with it.

When the murderer was scheduled for a bail hearing, the parents of the victim asked Aaron to go to the hearing with them. Aaron got there late, saw the killer walking down the street, and after a few words, yielded to his impulse for revenge and shot him in broad daylight in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. The victim recovered. His immature and misguided attempt to get an eye for an eye resulted, naturally, in a prison sentence. Back in the 90’s the idea of “tough on crime” was at its height and Aaron paid the price…..50 years in prison. He has now been there 20 years and is hoping that a bill in the Texas legislature, HB 1274, will give him a chance at parole this year, or next, instead of waiting till 2023.

Included here is a fine article by Brandi Grissom of the Dallas Morning News about Aaron’s story and the bill. His story is just one on many in which Texas teenagers have been sentenced to long prison terms for non-homicide crimes.


Texas legislators are considering two Second Look bills during the 85th session. SB 556 and HB 1274. The basic idea is to change the current requirement that individuals convicted and sentenced to prison for 3g {violent crimes} must serve half their sentences before parole review. These two bills focus on those individuals convicted before the age of eighteen. The change to existing requirements proposed in each bill makes parole review possible after 20 years, or half the sentence, whichever is less.

HB 1274 has had a public hearing { 3-21-17 } during which all the testimony was for the bill. This comes as no surprise to those familiar with neuro-science research on juvenile brains in the last ten years. What this shows is that male brains don’t fully mature till around the mid twenties. Some use this evidence to prove the diminished culpability of juveniles as a mitigating factor in case disposition. In theory, this evidence would encourage the District Attorney and Judge to consider this evidence in arriving at a resolution of the cases before them. This bill , however, jumps forward twenty years from prison entry, to state that these prisoners deserve somewhat earlier parole review because of their age at the time of the crime.

In no way does this bill guarantee parole after twenty years…..all it does is provide an opportunity for review. Such a formula based approach to parole review flies in the face of the evidence based methods now preferred in most reform proposals. It continues the decades long pattern of “one size fits all” approach to dealing with inmates. It is supported by the notion that ” the punishment should fit the crime”. The United States Supreme Court does not support this formula based approach to juveniles. It has stated clearly over the last five years that because juveniles are different, they should not be treated the same as adults. The mitigating factors of young age need to be considered when juveniles are involved in the criminal justice system.

HB 1274 is a very small step in the direction of common sense parole review. Legislation in other states sets earlier review times….10 to 15 years. If neuroscience evidence was the basis for review, the first one would take place at age 25…..when maturity has been achieved. Since juveniles have a much greater ability to change, a review at 25 would determine their actual growth and development. In addition it would provide valuable information about readiness for release. Such a review is not part of this bill….maybe down the road somewhere.

Support Texas Second Chance Bills for Juveniles

Aaron is one of about 650 current Texas prisoners sentenced as juveniles to terms of 35 years or more for non-homicide offenses. Current policies require that anyone convicted of a violent offense must serve one half of their sentence before first parole review.
It makes no difference if, like Aaron, one has a great record as a prisoner and has earned certificates in numerous programs. Aaron got 50 years for taking the law into his own hands at age 17, and doing something many have no problem with…..though it was definitely against the law. He shot and injured the guy who murdered his life long friend. In an immoral twist of justice, the killer was sentenced to 30 years. It is safe to assume that if Aaron could have afforded a legal team like Ken Paxton he would have received a more appropriate, and shorter sentence. But, instead of being a free man after 20 years in prison the TDCJ website says he will be parole eligible on Jan 6, 2023.
Even if Aaron had a prior record that indicated serious problems as a juvenile, and a pattern of bad choices, he still should not have received such a long sentence. In reality, his prior record was Driving Without a Seat Belt and Driving Too Slow. It is thus safe to conclude that his sentence was more about scoring political points than about his threat to public safety. It is well known that teenage boys often make poor choices…….no surprise really, because they are not mature, are not thinking about consequences, and often act impulsively. That’s why youths have none of the adult rights until they are 18 (except to be treated as one by a jury). Even that age, as neuro science has confirmed, is questionable since male brains don’t really mature till their mid-twenties. However, when he got sentenced, the idea of “tough on crime” encouraged prosecutors to be extremely harsh. Had he been arrested in Travis County instead of Tarrant County, he would, very likely, have received a more age appropriate sentence.
This legislative session, lawmakers in Austin will be considering Senate Bill 556 and House Bill1274. Both bills offer an earlier chance for parole to men like Aaron. The bills state that parole consideration be given after half the sentence is served, or twenty years, whichever is less. Approval of this bill would give Aaron a parole review this year. While I consider both bills totally inadequate….twenty years for a teenager for a first offense (non homicide)?…….they represent the risk averse steps lawmakers are comfortable with. In view of that I recommend everyone support them.
In order for each bill to be considered by the full House or Senate, they must be approved at the committee level. Therefore I highly recommend that you send letters to all the members of these two committees. To get their contact info just google Texas Senate/House Members. Call them as well, and encourage your friends to do the same.

Here are their names.
Senate Criminal Justice Committee SB556
CHAIR John Whitmire
VICE-CHAIR Joan Huffman
MEMBERS: Brian Birdwell, Konni Burton, Brandon Creighton, Sylvia R. Garcia, Bryan Hughes, José Menéndez, Charles Perry
House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee HB1274
CHAIR Joe Moody
VICE-CHAIR Todd Hunter
Members: Terry Canales, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, Cole Hefner, Mike Lang, Terry Wilson
A flood of support for these bills will increase their chance for passage. SO, DO NOT HESITATE…..TAKE ACTION NOW!!!!. Do it for Aaron, and all other prisoners who deserve, and have earned, a second chance at freedom and re-unification with their family and friends.
If you have time to help in other ways, let me know.

Visitation in Prison

Visitation in Prison

The following piece is a small portion of the “Responsible Prison Project” compiled by 5 Texas prisoners interested in improving the prison experience and helping meet the  TDCJ mission. To see the entire report:

Visitation in Prison: Studies based on reduced recidivism consistently show that visitation is one of the most effective methods of helping to rehabilitate an inmate. TDCJ recognizes this. Therefore, much attention should be given by Texas prison administrators to making visitation as comfortable as possible, without violating security.
While TDCJ’s visitation rules are uniform, the application of them throughout all Texas prisons is not. TIFA performed a survey of families who have visited their loved ones in more than one Texas prison. The overwhelming majority of those surveyed agreed that visitation rules are applied differently at the various units and that interpretation of the rules is subject to unit administration.
Not only are the rules applied differently throughout TDCJ, the facilities and the refreshments available are not the same either. For example, Wynne Unit does not have outside visitation, even though it has the facilities for it. Darrington Unit’s non- contact visitation area is not conducive to visitation because it is extremely noise due to the lack of echo-absorbent material on the walls and ceilings and the Plexiglas covering the visitation screens, and the same is generally true for all TDCJ units built before 1987. Wynne Unit sells ice cream in vending machines, but most other units do not. Some units have sandwiches and salads available for purchase, but most units have only junk food.
The price of the refreshments is a serious issue also. For example, a recent visitor at Darrington Unit paid $1.50 for a “Nutty Bar”; this same item is sold in the unit  commissary at a price of sixfor $1.45-which equates to a price discrepancy of more than 600%. Without question, the items sold at visitation are another example of price- gouging loved ones of inmates.This also raises the question of whether TDCJ is profiting from these vending sales.

.10TDCJ’s visitation policy states, «visitation is an integral component of the rehabilitation process and every effort will be made to ensure that visits are conducted under the least restrictive protocol available.”This statement is untrue, however. When compared with the visitation rules and regulations of other state prison systems and the federal prison system, TDCJ is one of the most restrictive inits protocol.

Another problem with visitation is overcrowding. Many families, especially during holiday weekends, may have to wait up to several hours for space availability before they can visit their incarcerated loved one. This discourages families from visiting. Part of this problem is the limited space available and TDCJ’s unwillingness to expand visitation areas, and part of the problem is that visitation is only permitted on Saturday and Sunday.
Due to the size and expanse of Texas, most families have to travel several hundred miles round trip just to see their loved one for two hours.11 This trip is quite expensive, averaging approximately $200 for gas, food, photos, etc., for inmate supporters to see their loved one. As a result, unless an inmate is fortunate enough to be in close proximity to his loved one, he does not receive visits regularly.


Visitation areas, especially contact areas, should be significantly expanded. Currently, allprofits from TDCJ’s inmate commissary are to be used tofund educational and recreational programsfor inmates. Each year, however, there is a surplus of at least
$5 million of thoseprofits that goes back into the State’s generalfund. Instead ofplacing
11 TDCJ acknowledges in its Visitation Rules and Regulations that “while it isrecognized that unit assignments may create hardships for visiting, assignments are based on considerations other than offender or family convenience.”

the funds of inmates’ Loved ones into the general fond, this money could instead be used to expand visitation areas by the purchase of portable buildings and/or providing a larger outside visitation area.
All visits should be extended from two hours to four hours in length, regardless of distance traveled. This would encourage visitors to drive the long distances-200 miles one way in many instances-to maintain a bond with their incarcerated loved one.
The objection regarding overcrowding would be moot if TDCJ would use commissary profits to expand visitation areas.

Considering TDCJ operates on the “least restrictive protocol” visitation policy, all inmates who maintain an S3 trusty classification status for more than one year should have all visits as contact visits instead of contact with only their immediate families as the policy is now.13 The current policy states that only S2-classified inmates (which are outside trusty inmates, housed in a trusty camp) are eligiblefor all visits to be contact. More than 60% of TDCJ’s population , however, are violent offenders and do not qualifyfor such classification; the highest classification they can earn is S3. These
inmates, however, are usually well-behaved. Therefore, if an inmate earns an S3 status and maintains that status for at least a year-thereby reflecting proper “institutional adjustment”-he should qualify for contact visits with all of his visitors. This would fall in line with the “least restrictive protocol” TDCJ claims to embrace. Other prison systems use an even lesser-restrictive protocol than this proposal. TDCJ would do well to

13 Exceptions would be made for inmates with visitation restrictions, such as no contact with children.

implement their policies. Doing so would promote positive behavior among the offender population and help reintegrate offenders into society by encouraging visitation most conducive to rehabilitation, according to studies on this subject.
Visitation days should be expanded beyond just the weekends. If visitation
were also allowed on Monday and Friday, for example, the overcrowding on Saturday and Sunday would be significantly alleviated. This would also further encourage visits with the inmates since employees who must work weekends would have the opportunity to visit during the week TDCJ should look at the many other prison systems that do this and implement their practices.
The prison visitation areas should provide wider, healthier food selections at all prisons. That may require the Legislature to enact laws requiring fruit, vegetable, and sandwich machines placed in all visitation areas, similar to legislation for school districts. Also, if TDCJ profits from vending sales, these kickbacks should be discontinued to decrease prices of vending machine snacks and to encourage inmate visits with no profit to TDCJ’s general fund.
TDCJ should also consider permitting families to purchase food to be delivered during the visit. Families could order food from Domino’s or Jimmy John’s, for example, pay for it before they enter the prison gate, and have it delivered to the prison during the visit. The meal could be run through the x-ray machine and inspected visually to ensure no contraband is present before being handed over to the visitor.14 Other prison systems permit such activities without security encroachments.

14 TDCJ will resist this because it is labor intensive. Officers are paid to do a job, however, like any other employee and should therefore have no problem earning the money they are paid.

Family activity opportunities, such as board games, should be provided by TDCJ in the visitation areas. Currently, children are provided coloring books and crayons, so providing board games should not be problematic. Such family activities should be actively encouraged.
Photos capture memories, and they are cherished by inmates and visitors alike. Currently, photos are taken by TDCJ staff one weekend per month from November through August and every weekend during September and October, at a cost o.f $3 per picture. This policy should be changed to permit photos to be taken every weekend so all inmates have the same opportunity to take photos with their loved ones.
Most officers treat the visitors with respect, but some treat the visitors as extensions of the inmate and therefore felonious themselves. Officers who may be scheduled to work visitation should be trained in how to treat visitors; they should be reminded that visitors are non-criminals in the criminal justice equation and should be treated with respect at all times. Visitors should therefore be allowed some avenue to make a formal complaint against officers working visitation, and once the officer receives three similar complaints, they should be permanently restricted from working visitation and proper administrative actions should be taken against them by TDCJ.
While it is unlikely that TDCJ would seriously review this idea, conjugal visits should be considered. According to a study done by Yale University, conjugal visits are permitted in some form in approximately 20% of all American prison systems (nine out of fifty-one, including the federal system). Conjugal visits would potentially reduce sexual misconduct in prison, and would also strengthen the family bond.

Video visitation should be permitted for visitors who are unable to drive long distances to see their loved ones, but this should in no way replace physical visits.