Category Archives: better programming in prison

ReImagining Prisons For Teens and Adults

American prisons hold far too many teens and adults at too great a social and financial cost. Mountains of books and articles have been written about incarceration in America. Right now there is widespread interest in finally getting serious about changes that have long been needed. If polls were the determining factor used by politicians, significant changes would happen soon. But lawmakers are poll-iticians. Instead they reflect long held personal moral, religious or philosophical beliefs that have more to do with staying in office and satisfying funders. Our correctional systems are dominated by a law enforcement mentality that emphasizes retribution, obedience, control and security.

The well known failure of prisons to change behavior is seen in recidivism rates. But then, how could they possibly succeed in providing prisoners with tools for post release success when there is no established vision, or funding, to accomplish that? Fortunately there are an increasing number of individuals inside and outside of prison who have seen the need to move beyond the kind of snail pace change that has been acceptable to date. The problems are diverse and deeply rooted in history. Up to now the immensity of the problem has resulted in only incremental advancements.

Fortunately, the folks at the Vera Institute of Justice are not mired in that old thinking. They have launched the ReImagining Prison Project that has all the hallmarks of a needed revolution in correctional thinking and practice. They not only incorporate a vast array of available knowledge from many parts of America but have been instrumental in establishing a pilot project for emerging youth in a Connecticut prison. This is modeled after prisons in Germany that have been designed on the basic principle of recognizing and promoting human dignity. A very worthwhile read for anyone interested in transformation of the systems we are familiar with.



Texas prisoners could help Harvey recovery

Whenever disaster strikes, Americans reliably “reveal their true colors” by selflesslly helping those in need. With recovery from Harvey now underway, the need for a massive amount of help, especially assistance with temporary housing, is immense. Many Texans who would otherwise help, must return to their jobs. It thus becomes incumbent on our elected officials to figure out how to provide the help that is needed. As it turns out, Texas has a huge, untapped, supply of manpower that could be marshaled to assist in this recovery…..Texas prisoners. Just like other Texans, they are read willing and able to do their part. Making that happen is a challenge that our elected officials could choose to accept.

After Katrina, readers might recall the FEMA trailer debacle when high priced trailers turned out to have been made with toxic materials. Also after Katrina, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, along with other organizations, created a pilot project with the goal of developing emergency housing quickly to take the place of FEMA trailers. While the status of that project remains unknown, there are options that don’t require great architectural or engineeering experience…….and one such option is right in Houston’s backyard. As one of the countrie’s largest ports, Houston companies have a large supply of unused shipping containers that could quickly be converted tp perfectly suitable, small homes. Converting shipping containers into homes and businesses is not a new idea. There are examples around the country of such conversions.

In the case of Texas, our prisons have metal fabrication shops that could be used to cut the openings  for doors and windows. There are woodworking facilities that could manufacture whatever wood components are required. Then there is a good supply of skilled carpeters, plumbers, electricians who could create whatever interior infrastructure is called for.

In the spirit of Texans helping Texans, building material companies could donate, or offer at cost, much of the materials needed. YTransportation companies could deleiver and retreive containers to select prisons. The State of Texas could work with FEMA and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to design a contract to make this happen. In an unusual twist for TDCJ, the contract stipulate that prisoners would actually get paid, at least minimum wage for their work. Some of those wages could then, in another revolutionary act, be deducted to pay for their room and board and other expenses.

Anyone who has ever lived in a trailer in the Texas sun is keenly aware of the need to cool their living space. Experienced trailer users, concerned about the costs of cooling, will install a secondary roof, kind of like a large umbrella, to shade their “tin can”. As it turns out, many Texas prisons are like very large “tin cans” and both the prisoners and the staff would benefit from such a remedy. Such shading of metal structures not only makes life inside them nore comfortable, but does so at an affordable cost.

After a while, temporary housing is gradually vacated, as homes are repaired and returned to their intended use. What one has then are fully viable, small, homes that are then available for other uses. For example, these container homes could provide affordable housing for the homeless. They could even be sold to first time home buyers for whom “normal” homes are financially out of reach. Either of those options would require cities to re-visit their zoning codes to make “tiny” homes a legitimate choice for those in need of economical housing.

This is a time for maximum creativity by utilizing the tremendous resources available in our state. Texas could set a nationwide example for how to mobilize a vastly underutlized part of our population to make a huge difference in the lives of those in need.

Wolf Sittler

1403 Kenwood Ave, Austin, TX 78704  512 447-2150


Penalty, Punishment, Prison

There’s some unidentified psychological mechanism that makes it permissable to treat some fellow humans as less than equal…..and thus undeserving of a wide range of rights and opportunities we all take for granted.

One of these less than equal groups, are those convicted of criminal behavior. Illegal acts have penalties that go along with them, as they should.

For example, if caught speeding, the fine (unless fine is avoided) will depend on how fast, and where, you were driving. You pay the fine……. end of story…..except maybe your insurance company might call! One problem with this response is that it impacts poor people far more than poor people.

On the other hand if you get in a fight with someone and they’re injured, you might (this depends on multiple factors (money, race, geography and connections)   go to prison…..that’s a more severe penalty…..loss of liberty.

However, that the loss of freedom is just the beginning of many more penalties. That’s where punishment begins….as an add on to the penalty. Prisoners are required to work, but are not paid….. yet, a visit to the commissary requires money. Prisoners , and their visitors , are deprived of reasonable time, and space, during visitation. They are deprived of many of the tools that would enhance understanding of self and others. A prisoner who wants higher education must get in line, because there are 15,000 people in line and not nearly enough classes… tuition must be paid. Prisoners can only dream about genuienly  healthy food and adequate medical/psychological care. All these are largely avoidable.

These are just a few of the areas screaming for change. It seems like folks are beginning to listen to the cries of suffering victims, prisoners, and the families of each. Join with others……..we can do better than this.

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

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.

Prison Business

Prison Business

Both juveniles and adults populate the vast American prison business systems. This method of dealing with those who break the law has been around for centuries. While modern day American prisons do a somewhat better job of responding to the actual needs of prisoners, they have a very long way to go before actually dealing effectively with those sentenced to them.

The costs of incarcerating people, guilty or not, and needing it or not, have risen as the population has exploded. Those costs have always been born by those not sent to prison….American taxpayers. Basically, prisons are like businesses without the accountability demanded of for profit businesses. Anyone familiar with how business works, knows that if a business has a product return rate of 25% and more, it is not sustainable. A prison is essentially a business without the accountability demanded by investors. Yet, prisons, as we know them, receive annual funding irrespective of their “product” success or failure. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice receives about 3.3 billion every year. Any private business with that amount of spending would never escape accountability…..but such has been the case.

Imagine what would happen if businessmen were to be put in charge of prisons. They would not care about partisan politics, or re-election…..they would be focused on how to improve the bottom line. They would take a practical look at what works and change what doesn’t. They would not keep those ready for released locked up way beyond necessary because it would waste too much money. The kind of change they would initiate would pale in comparison to the tiny incremental change currently fashionable among the partisan politicians currently in charge.

It seems the endless lust for punishment has blinded the senses of those who perpetuate the failed systems in place throughout our great country. The time for something bigger and bolder is long overdue. In the article linked here, such a vision is proposed by William R. Kelly, professor at the University of Texas.

Juvenile Reform in Massachusetts

Juvenile Reform in Massachusetts

The Impressive Top-to-Bottom Makeover of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System

Juvenile Reform in Massachusetts: Teenagers make mistakes. They sneak out past curfew to drink at a house party, shoplift clothes, graffiti their names in bathroom stalls, talk back to authorities and throw punches in heated moments. Our juvenile justice system views some of these violations as youthful folly; others are deemed criminal offenses. Unjustly, skin color or socioeconomic status might determine how the behavior is categorized. Suburban white youth are tsk-tsked, while urban black children are handcuffed and jailed.

Massachusetts created the nation’s first juvenile correctional system around 1846, and it also led the first reforms by shutting down Dickensian “training schools.” But during the high-crime spike of the 1990s, the punitive model common to most states made a resurgence. However, while laws passed making it easier to try kids as adults, a group of fed-up employees teamed up to reform youth courts, juvenile detention facilities and probation offices from within. While much of the country continues to arrest more than 1.02 million children every year, Massachusetts reduced the number in custody down to a daily average of about 190 youth, or 2,240 admissions annually. These state workers also dramatically slashed the number of children under age 14 placed in secure facilities from roughly 500 to just a handful.

What changed? The state wised up to normal teenage behavior and its institutions’ role in either furthering or freezing maturity. Reformers implemented what they call “positive youth development” as the main priority. Under this philosophy, which draws much of its insight from developmental psychology, the Massachusetts juvenile justice system stopped focusing on the bad things kids shouldn’t do and started promoting positive outcomes. When a child makes a mistake, the state steps in as the de facto parent, teacher, mentor and neighbor. Recognizing that youth need to grasp a sense of their own future in order to avoid a life of crime, college graduation and job placement replace recidivism as measures of success.

“For example, the kid who comes into court for fighting at school will ordinarily be put on probation, where he’s told, ‘Don’t fight, follow all the rules, keep a curfew.’ But if this is an 8th grade boy who’s old enough to be in high school and reading at a 2nd grade level, he’ll never succeed on probation. It’s never enough to order children to behave better. We need to look at their life circumstances and ask, ‘What resources, opportunities, services or supports are they going to need in order to be able to behave better?’ asks Joshua Dohan, head of the state public defenders’ juvenile unit. “As adults, we need to do something kids are not good at, which is taking the long view. What do we need to invest in over the long run so that we can nurture a healthy adult, as opposed to punishing a kid because he missed school one day?”

Attorney Joshua Dohan believes in the idea of “positive youth development” to help juveniles work toward a brighter future.Courtesy of Joshua Dohan

A little over a decade ago, Dohan, a public defender representing youth in Boston reached out to one of the men in charge of the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Dohan wanted to know if the official (who regularly locked up plenty of teenagers) wanted to join him at an upcoming conference on juvenile defense. “Ignorant” of the role good defense attorneys played in a child’s case, Edward Dolan, then deputy commissioner of Massachusetts’s Department of Youth Services, accepted. In an unexpected turning point, Massachusetts’s entire juvenile justice system started to flip. As the top leadership started collaborating, a punitive model slowly lost out to a restorative one.

For too long, each separate agency in the criminal justice system — from the lawyers in court, to guards in detention facilities, to officers in probation — had been caught up in its own institutional inertia, carrying out policies because that’s how they had always been done. There’d been some dissenting voices, most prominently Ned Loughran, a former priest who had agitated against harsh retribution for juveniles as head of DYS from 1985–1993. But on the whole, the agencies remained trapped within their respective silos. At the conference, focused on the entire juvenile justice system, Dohan and Dolan had their first chance to look outside their own roles, question the underlying rules and realign the system in kids’ best interests.

“Even though I’m in the business, it was the first time I was seeing the world through [the public defenders’] eyes. I put myself in their position, looking from a kid’s perspective and a…mother’s perspective at some of the things we did as an agency. We were like a machine,” Dolan says. “[Juvenile detention] was a pretty troubled agency at the time, overwhelmed and overcrowded. Even for the big leadership in the organization, we didn’t feel good about the way we were doing things. We were looking for a better pathway forward.”

Starting with that one conference where defense attorneys and a juvenile jailor found common ground, the agencies initiated a conversation about their overlapping roles in helping youth. Side by side, they could no longer blame other parts of the system for the dysfunction. From there, a group of bureaucrats started to rewrite the system together, unified under the banner of an approach that made more sense for children.

“Positive youth development” generally defines the field of academics applying insights from neuroscience and knowledge of human development to criminal justice. As practitioners, attorneys and officers usually don’t have time to get an advanced degree in social work, says Dohan. “The people who apply it have taken it on as their task to sort through and operationalize [the research] for youth workers, teachers, lawyers and probation officers to give us guidance about what works and what doesn’t and why.”

Through an educational partnership, the Boston Department of Youth Services invites Boston Public Library authors to connect to youth using books that reflect their lived experiences. Here, Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, authors of “All American Boy,” visit a DYS facility.Courtesy of Department of Youth Services

At the height of the War on Drugs, policymakers generally split along partisan lines about how to respond to criminal acts by youth. The right wing saw unchangeable “super-predators” who needed to be incarcerated to restore law and order, while leftists saw victims of poverty who needed counseling and therapy, says Dr. Jeffrey Butts, director of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Research & Evaluation Center.

Both of these viewpoints are “incredibly biased in terms of class and race,” adds Butts, best known as one of the field’s founders, because they assume teens from high-crime communities are inherently more criminal than their peers elsewhere. The developmental approach, in contrast, doesn’t take a child’s actions as indicative of their character. Butts’s theory holds that the best way to stop crime is to encourage youth to acquire skills. Unlike the other two models, “the fact that a 17-year-old stole a bike doesn’t mean he’s destined to be an adult criminal,” Butts says.

Positive youth development maintains that five assets enable teens to mature into law-abiding citizens: strong bonds with adults and prosocial peers, a safe home, a healthy lifestyle, opportunities for civic engagement and an effective education and success in the labor market. Possessing these resources will make youth naturally begin to see that belonging to conventional society is more valuable, says Butts, than the short-term advantage one might accrue from committing a crime. If a young person feels connected to his community, “there’s more to lose by being caught stealing someone’s phone than by saving the few hundred dollars to buy a new one,” he adds.

“We have to be at least as good as criminal street gangs. They know exactly how to bring a 10-year-old into a group, how to increase their sense of purpose until they become very loyal,” Butts adds. “We need to be at least that good in attaching young people to our community.”

Positive development takes place at every step of the Massachusetts juvenile justice system — from when a public defender meets a client in lockup to the last appointment with a probation officer. For them, it’s not about creating a “feel-good” system, so much as designing systems that will reduce recidivism and lead to positive outcomes. Unlike most other states, Massachusetts offers a network of highly specialized public defenders for juveniles — a benchmark few under-resourced legal aid societies across the country have met. “What makes juvenile defense such a critical area of specialized practice is that in order to be effective, you need to have all the skills of an effective criminal defense lawyer and all the knowledge of adolescent development,” says Mary Ann Scali, head of the National Juvenile Defender Center. “In places like Massachusetts…, we know that we can provide constitutionally mandated access to counsel and effective counsel all the time.”

In Massachusetts, Dohan built the Committee for Public Counsel Services’s Youth Advocacy Department into a premier league of 36 staff attorneys and over 500 private attorneys who receive regular trainings on juvenile-specific topics. That’s a big feat considering these lawyers sign up for an unforgiving job. “The pay is terrible. Juvenile is the hardest place to make a living because there’s no private clients,” Dohan explains. (Still, you won’t hear him brag about what he’s developed; when NationSwell reached out to profile him for this story, the humble attorney sent back a list of 18 other sources to interview.)

Even when these experienced defense lawyers can’t argue their client’s innocence, the child is still in good hands in the Department of Youth Services, which leverages every connection it has to ensure kids receive the services they need. DYS tries to offer “all those things that you’d want for your own 17-year-old teenager,” says Peter Forbes, DYS commissioner. Indeed, kids seem to grasp the value, because half continue to go back to DYS for services (like tutoring, job training, coaching and counseling) for up to three years after they’re released. Most return for about six months on average, Forbes reports — something that would be unheard of at a jail like New York’s Rikers Island or a prison like San Quentin in California.

And finally, once a child is put on probation, her public defender will argue for a reasonable plan that’s created to advance her best interests. It’s a stark contrast with the old model — “trail ‘em and nail ‘em,” as Dohan calls it. The new system’s main goal is to ensure conditions are achievable. Much of this advocacy centers on education. As Dohan’s seen from experience, an 8th grader reading at a 2nd grade level feels like they’re being “tortured.” Bored, frustrated or humiliated, these students are prone to acting out. To help a child catch up, the lawyers are trained to involve the school system. “It’s not enough not to be expelled. We also get them into a program in which they can succeed,” Dohan describes. Kids won’t march themselves into a principal’s office to request this fix, but their lawyers in Massachusetts will. “Our job is not just to make the kid look good in the courtroom,” he adds. “Our job is to litigate but then put them in a much better position to succeed when the case is over.”

In implementing this program, the Massachusetts reformers, at first, fought an uphill battle to win funding from legislators. “In fairness to legislators, you are asking them to make an investment of the public’s money. They should expect a return on that investment,” Dolan says. They quickly saw a payback, in the form of reduced recidivism, and legislators soon allowed money saved from reduced caseloads to be reinvested into other initiatives. (Where that funding didn’t suffice, agencies turned to nonprofits outside the state system to supplement their work, assistance they still rely on today.) As evidence accrues, it’s getting easier to sell the developmental approach.

Even as this model gains traction, it still presents problems to be solved. Up next? The reformers are trying to confront racial and ethnic discrimination that’s endemic to the system by rigorously studying the data to locate what Dolan calls “unintentional but undeniable” disparities in treatment, offering classes on implicit bias and working with partners outside corrections to generate awareness. If they get it right, there’s much that can be used in correctional systems — both juvenile and adult — nationwide. Dohan, Dolan and Forbes started out with the intention of helping kids see their future; in the process, they’ve defined what’s next for a justice system in sore need of a new direction.

Read more:

Juveniles Are Not Adults

When it comes to dealing with juvenile lawbreakers, there are wide differences of opinion. Every parent knows that teenagers are prone to do stupid things, so the findings of neuro-scientists that teenage brains are not fully developed, is not news. Many people who once were teenagers did things for which they could have been arrested, but they did not get caught. Since every individual is unique, the question is whether there is a way to deal with juveniles that accounts for their immaturity. To date the trend has been to use a “one size fits all” approach based on the notion that this is the only fair and equal way to respond. That approach certainly merits examination. Here is a piece about the issue of deciding when a kid is a kid. Not comprehensive, but it adds to the debate.


Who’s a Kid?

Science — and law enforcement — are rethinking young adults.

Consider three young people: An 18-year old who can vote, but can’t legally buy a beer; a 21-year old who can drink, but is charged extra to rent a car; and a 25-year old who can rent a car at the typical rate, but remains eligible for his parents’ health insurance.

Published in collaboration with The New Republic.

Which one is an adult? All of them? None of them? Some of them? Or does it depend on the individual?

These questions are newly salient in the criminal justice system. Over the past year, several states—including Vermont, Illinois, New York, and Connecticut—have debated laws that would change how the justice system treats offenders in their late teens and early twenties. It remains the case that in 22 states, children of any age—even those under 10—can be prosecuted as adults for certain crimes. “Raise the Age” campaigns across the country are pushing for legal changes in order to treat all offenders under 18 as juveniles. But some advocates and policymakers are citing research to argue 18 is still too young, and that people up to the age of 25 remain less than fully grown up.

Some of the most compelling evidence comes via magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. In 2011, brain researchers Catherine Lebel and Christian Beaulieu published a study of 103 people between the ages of 5 and 32, each of whom received multiple brain scans over the course of six years. The researchers were looking for changes in white brain matter, a material that supports impulse control and many other types of cognitive functioning. The majority of participants in the study, including those as old as 32, experienced increases in white matter connectivity between scans. In some parts of the brain, this connectivity increased by as much as 4 percent between the ages of 20 and 30, compared to as much as a 6 percent change between the ages of 10 and 20. In a separate study of 403 children and adults, the same researchers and a group of collaborators found that the volume of white brain matter peaks around age 37. Altogether, the research suggests that brain maturation continues into one’s twenties and even thirties.

“Everyone has always known that there are behavioral changes throughout the lifespan,” said Lebel, now an assistant professor of radiology at the University of Calgary. “It’s only with new imaging techniques over the last 15 years that we’ve been able to get at some of these more subtle changes.”

Researchers are using the term “post-adolescence” or “extended adolescence” to describe this period of development in one’s twenties and early thirties. Social change is as important as biological change in understanding why some people in this age group are drawn to crime. Individuals who are “disconnected”—neither working nor in school—are more likely to get in trouble with the law. While fewer young women are disconnected today than in previous decades, the opposite is true for young men.

In the 1960s, feminism and the advent of the birth control pill destigmatized premarital sex. Young women began to focus on education and career before motherhood or marriage, and couples were able to delay childrearing. Between 1960 and 2015, the average age at first marriage lept from 20 to 27 for women and 23 to 29 for men. Fewer family responsibilities made it less imperative for young adults to work full time, and with the downsizing of the manufacturing sector, there were also fewer jobs available for young men without a college degree. Today, one in seven Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither working nor enrolled in school. Among young black men, 26 percent fall into that disconnected group.

“Researchers have caught up with what parents have noticed,” said Terrie Moffitt, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. “When my parents finished high school in the 1950s, you immediately got married, had your first child, and went into a job that you had for many years. Now we have the concept of a gradually emerging adulthood.”

Experts used to believe that “adult onset” criminals, or those who get in trouble for the first time in their twenties or older, were more likely than juvenile offenders to come from affluent backgrounds, and to have higher intelligence. New research questions those assumptions. For several decades, Moffitt has been studying a cohort of nearly 1,000 people born in New Zealand in 1972. In a paper published in March, she and a group of coauthors observed that the research subjects who were convicted of a crime for the first time as legal adults—at age 20 or over in New Zealand—had a lot in common with those convicted for the first time as legal juveniles. Both groups were likely to have had challenges such as low-income parents, behavioral problems dating back to childhood, and below-average IQs. Many of the common crimes committed by people in their twenties, such as driving under the influence, seemed related to impulse control problems typically associated with teenagers.

If people in their twenties are a lot like adolescents socially and biologically, should they really be considered full adults under the law? Many advocates who work directly with this population say no. “For many years, the idea of how to achieve public safety with this group was you want to lock them up, protect the community by not having them around,” said Yotam Zeira, director of external affairs for Roca, a Massachusetts organization that provides counseling, education, and job training to 17 to 24-year old male offenders. “The sad reality is that after you lock them up, nothing gets better. Public safety is not really improved. Prosecutors know they are prosecuting, again and again, the same people.”

Zeira, the coauthor of a report on justice alternatives for this age group, sees three possible reforms: reclassifying young adults in their early twenties as juveniles, as is the case in Germany and the Netherlands; providing judges, attorneys, and probation programs more tools within the adult system to treat younger defendants with leniency and rehabilitation; or creating an entirely new young adult justice system “in between” the family and criminal court, with specially trained prosecutors and judges and less of a mandate to incarcerate.

Some progress has already been made. Nationwide, the incarceration rate of 18 to 24-year olds dropped by 28 percent between 2001 and 2013, according to a data analysis from the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Some states want to push even further. In June, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a law that will allow some offenders up to the age of 22 to be referred to family court, where the focus is on rehabilitation, instead of criminal court, where the focus is on punishment.

In other states, the politics have proven more difficult. In February, Illinois state Rep. Laura Fine, a Democrat, introduced two bills that would raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 21, one just for misdemeanors, and one for both misdemeanors and felonies. According to Fine, prosecutors from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office opposed even the misdemeanor-only plan, and she could not garner significant Republican support. “We weren’t optimistic it was going to go anywhere,” Fine said. “It’s going to be a matter of time and people getting used to the idea and learning more.”

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2007, Connecticut raised the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18, and Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has proposed raising it again, to 21, for all but the most violent felonies. That legislation has not moved forward, but the state is planning a new, separate prison to house 18 to 25-year olds, in order to keep them segregated from supposedly more hardened, career criminals.

A similar compromise took place in New York. Last year, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo supported legislation that would have raised the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 for most crimes. It also would have established specialized courts for young adult defendants and allowed some prisoners as old as 23 to remain in juvenile facilities. Republican legislators, prosecutors, and even some associations of defense attorneys opposed the plan, and it died. Gov. Cuomo later issued an executive order establishing segregated prisons for teenagers convicted as adults.

While politically palatable, young adult prisons may not be all that successful in decreasing reoffending. Research shows that even detention in a juvenile facility is “criminogenic,” meaning it makes it more likely that a person will reoffend, compared to a juvenile who committed a similar crime, but was not incarcerated.

Beyond politics, one of the challenges of asserting that 18 to 25-year olds are not full adults is that science shows some people in this age group are much more mature than others, with more static brains. “You can’t look at a brain scan from someone you don’t know and say that person is 18,” said Lebel, the brain researcher. “You can pick out any age, whether it’s 5 or 30, and you see people are distributed over a wide range.”

Moffitt, the psychologist, agrees that the policy implications of the new research are far from clear. “In our justice system, it has to be the same rule for everyone for it to be just and fair,” she said. “There will always be the sort of very serious, early onset kind of offenders that… will have a crime career as a lifestyle.” There is also a “larger group of young people who are milling around, being young, getting in trouble, annoying everyone. But young people have always done that. You don’t want them to get a criminal record that prevents them from getting a job.”

The problem, Moffitt added, is that “as long as you make a cut point based on age, you are treating both groups the same.”


Whether juveniles or adults are in prison, they should, at the very least, be exposed to programming that helps them become better people. While this does not fit the “lock’em up and throw away the key” faction, it is the only way that those released from prison can be more successful. It’s not uncommon to hear about parolees getting into trouble after release and going back, two, three and even more times. That however does not prompt re-examination of what is going on inside of prisons that contributes to such failure.

The punishment model has been tried for decades and that we have is over two million people in jails and prisons. The main result is the high cost of incarceration to law abiding tax payers and high recidivism rates. One would think this would lead to an evaluation of prison effectiveness to insure that tax money is being well spent. However, it is quite common for prison systems to continue receiving funding irrespective of their questionable results. This points to a lack of accountability that is not in the public interest and is, in fact dangerous to the public because of the damage caused by new criminal behavior.

Prisons can, and need, to do a better job of preparing inmates for real life. The “Responsible Prison Project” written by five Texas prisoners offers a guide that would do just that. The ideas contained in that document come from the very people impacted by prison life and thus offer a perspective directly from the front lines. Other ideas for how to make prisons more effective can be found in other countries. Many western European countries have a different approach about how to deal with those in prison. One such example can be found in Germany. The Vera Institute recently released a video about the purpose and practice of incarceration and highlighted the German system.  Definitely far from what Americans are familiar with in our system, and worth a look.

Texas Inmates Propose Specific Reforms

Earlier this spring, one of my “pen” pals told me that a fellow group of Texas prisoners all had ideas about how to improve the prison experience. Added together, they have spent more than 95 years in prison, so their opinions are shaped by real life experience. They all wanted to help the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) better achieve their stated mission:


I suggested they put their heads together and outline proposals they thought would contribute to mission accomplishment. They spent the hot summer months (70% of Texas prisons have no air-conditioning) deciding what to focus on and how to present it. One inmate. Aaron Flaherty, took the lead and typed up the results and sent them to me. That document has five components, the longest of which ( 65 PAGES) is titled the ” RESPONSIBLE PRISON PROJECT ……..RESHAPING THE TEXAS PRISON SYSTEM FOR GREATER PUBLIC SAFETY”.

Normally ideas for reform come from academics, reform oriented non-profits, think tanks and the politicians they inform and, sometimes, ex-felons. Since these documents came from inside the system itself, it seemed obvious that it needed to get into the hands of “deciders” and others in a position to influence policy. Copies were made and delivered, In September, to the offices of Senator John Whitmire, dean of the Texas senate and longtime Chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and Representative Jim Murphy, Chairman of the House Corrections Committee. Last week copies were made available to the nine members of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice and TDCJ Director Brian Collier at their bi-monthly meeting.

Believing that an even wider audience was desirable, the Marshall Project was contacted. This is the nations’ number one source for news about criminal justice issues. They agreed to publish the document along with a short introduction. This can be found in the following link.