Sentenced at age 17

When his lifelong friend was murdered at age 17, Aaron was unable to process the grief associated with such a loss. He acted out his desire for revenge by trying to kill the killer. He failed, was arrested (first time ever), and a combination of prosecutor politics and questionable defense got him 50 years in prison. He’s been there now for 20 years. He wrote the following piece for the Second Look Summit in November, 2017, arranged by the Lone Star Justice Alliance.

A YEARNING SOUL

I have such vivid memories of walking across the auditorium stage at my high school graduation as my name is called out. Such joyful memories of my beautiful wife and I cutting our wedding cake as the room erupts into camera flashes and cheers. Such initmate memories of laying next to my wife during the quiet hours of the night listening to her peaceful shallow beaths and feeling so blessed. Such amazing memories of my home exploding into the sounds of high-pitched laughter and squeals of glee as I chase and tickle my children. Such striking memories of celebrating birthdays and holidays with those I love. These memories I speak of are brilliantly real until I awake to discover that these memories are not authentic relivings of the past, because this past that has so vibrantly burst into my minds eye, was never a reality. They are dreams of accomplishments that did not occur… Dreams of a treasured wife wifew I have never known… Dreams of precious children I have not created… Dreams of an approaching quarter of a century worth of memories that never were… Dreams of nothing more than a yearning soul.

Despite the toxic conditions I was forced to grow up in, I persevered to become an enriched man… Despite the huge sentence and unquestionable future, I obtained a college education… Despite the countless odds stacked against ,e, I have risen… And I am not alone. Hundreds of youth offenders possess stories like my own. Like me, most are not bad people and never were. Like me, they just made a horrible decision during the youth of their lives.

“When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things” 1 Corinthians 13:14

You have the power to be a vessel for change. To be the voice for those who cannot speak. To be the sounding mallet of justice. You are the front line for our state’s youth, past and present. You are the carriers of hope and possibilities. Through your envisgae arose Second Look, and through your determination to see it through, countless lives will forever be changed. Your presence here today at the Second Look convention exposes the profound goodness shining within you and there are simply no wqords to express the gratitude so many of us on the inside feel. We rise with you…

J. Aaron Dyson 815938

2661 FM 2054 / Coffield Unit

Tennessee Colony, TX 75884

PROSECUTORIAL POWER AND TEENS

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…..to 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.

https://injusticetoday.com/does-childhood-end-at-18-7dab03c5e829

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

JUVENILES MATURE IN PRISON AT GREAT COST

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:

BETWEEN THE 85th AND 86th SESSION
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.

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JUVENILE SENT TO ADULT PRISON -20 YEARS AGO

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.

https://www.dallasnews.com/news/texas-legislature/2017/04/08/convicted-murderer-wants-man-shot-get-prison

SECOND LOOK FOR TEXAS TEENS 2017

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.
Wolf