Category Archives: juvenile justice

Re-visiting Excessive Teen Prison Sentences

In the upcoming Texas legislative session, the Second Look bill concerning excessive sentences for teenagers will be resubmitted for consideration. That bill, establishing earlier parole eligibility for juveniles sentenced to long prison terms, is supported by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that clearly state that underage youth are different and should not be treated as though they were adults. Every parent knows this and neuroscience research proves that the brains of emerging adults do not mature till the early to mid twenties.

For example, the Second Look bill, as currently written, would offer a prisoner, sentenced to 50 years, a chance at parole after 20 years, rather than ½ the sentence (or 25 years) mandated by current law. My question is: Why, in the face of clear evidence, does the proposed bill set first review at 20 years? While that is a slight improvement over the requirement to serve half the time, it is still another “one size fits all” prescription that, like so many other parts of the system, ignores individual differences. Answer? When it come to dealing with lawbreakers, lawmakers have long been only willing to make very small changes to very big problems.

The last big change in sentencing guidelines occurred at the stroke of midnight on August 31, 1993. That was when anyone convicted of a violent crime was required to serve half their time before parole consideration. Prior to that, the law set minimum time served at ¼ of the sentence. That change was not based on evidence of the effectiveness of long sentences but was largely political. It was a response to public fear of crime that had been inflamed by extensive media coverage of an alleged youth crime wave. Whatever the reason, it was a continuation of the broad-brush approach that has become the accepted way to deal with lawbreakers.

Second Lookers are the current prisoners, convicted as juveniles, during that “tough on crime” era, and sent to adult prisons. Most of them have been there 20 years or more. Many of them have long since matured and outgrown those behaviors that got them in trouble. Questions naturally arise: Is it in the public interest to continue incarceration of inmates who have demonstrated readiness for release? What is the moral or economic justification for keeping those individuals behind bars? Is it finally time to implement the idea that “prisons are for people we’re afraid of, not the ones we’re mad at”?

Second Look is a small step in that direction. Perhaps, in the near future, further changes will be recommended that reflect proposed changes to the Model Penal Code. Since 1960, the MPC has long guided legislator’s decisions regarding criminal justice policy. Now, after 15 years of nationwide research, the American Law Institute is recommending changes to the sentencing portion of the Code. The new position regarding sentencing of juveniles recommends first parole review at 10 years. This is a radical shift but reflects the latest knowledge available about the most appropriate way to deal with juvenile offenders. It fits entirely with this comment from the Chicago office of Human Rights Watch………

“ Youths who commit crimes should be held accountable, but in a way that reflects their capacity for rehabilitation”.

Teens Are Not Adults

He grew up in a society that supports the death penalty, all lesser forms of punishment, and places a high value on guns. So it was not surprising that when, at age 17, his lifelong friend was murdered, thoughts of revenge would not leave his immature brain. Months later, during a confrontation with the killer who was out on bail, he yielded to the impulse to hurt back, and shot him. The victim survived, and later, both were sentenced to prison. The murderer got 30 years, and that guy, who failed to get an eye for an eye, got 50 years.

His name is Aaron. Today, 20 years later, he’s still in prison because of a law that requires he “serve” half his time before any consideration for release. Unlike outside the walls, were hard work, dependability and persistence gets rewarded, inside it makes not the slightest bit of difference. There are no incentives for demonstrating personal responsibility…….except for a credit system that was intended to offset the fact that inmates get paid nothing for their work.

All prisoners are eligible to earn credits for good behavior and even more for actively participating in work….it’s called good time/work time credits. Those credits can be used to somewhat shorten the time for parole eligibility. If, you are in prison for a violent offense, however, you can earn those credits but not use them.

Those who study human behavior know that incentives have been proven to have much more positive results than punishment. That knowledge has yet to be incorporated into the prison system…..to the detriment of prisoners, staff, future victims and every taxpayer whose money subsidizes counter productive policies.

The issues here are many…here are a few:

1: Treating a juvenile like an adult when he has none of the legal rights of adult. Add to that the fact that neuroscience has proven that, until the mid twenties, most brains are not fully mature…..a fact that contributes to young people making non-rational decisions. Any parent knows the truth of that finding.

2: The lack of incentives in prison contributes to a lack of hope. Absense of hope is contrary to the stated mission of the prison system that is to “promote positive change in offender behavior”.

3: Extreme sentence for youths, along with mandatory minimums, totally disregard individual differences and their proven potential to change.

4: The primary purpose of incarceration is punishment based…..incapacitation… with the main focus on security and control. Underfunded educational, vocational, substance abuse and mental health programming, guarantees higher recidivism rates. The consequent costs get passed on to future victims and taxpayers.

5: Release from prison needs to be based on more than outdated and “one size fits all” policies put in place by politicians….most of whom have neither experience, or training, in how to create environments that promote scoailly responsible behavior.

TEENAGER IN A GUN CULTURE

This teenager grew up in a society that supports the death penalty, all lesser forms of punishment, and places a high value on guns. So it was not surprising that when, at age 17, his lifelong friend was murdered, thoughts of revenge would not leave his immature brain. Months later, during a confrontation with the killer who was out on bail, he yielded to the impulse to hurt back, and shot him. The victim survived, and later, both were sentenced to prison. The murderer got 30 years, and that guy, who failed to get an eye for an eye, got 50 years.

His name is Aaron. Today, 20 years later, he’s still in prison because of a law that requires he “serve” half his time before any consideration for release. Unlike outside the walls, were hard work, dependability and persistence gets rewarded, inside it makes not the slightest bit of difference. There are no incentives for demonstrating personal responsibility…….except for a credit system that was intended to offset the fact that inmates get paid nothing for their work.

All prisoners are eligible to earn credits for good behavior and even more for actively participating in work….it’s called good time/work time credits. Those credits can be used to somewhat shorten the time for parole eligibility. If, you are in prison for a violent offense, however, you can earn those credits but not use them.

Those who study human behavior know that incentives have been proven to have much more positive results than punishment. That knowledge has yet to be incorporated into the prison system…..to the detriment of prisoners, staff, future victims and every taxpayer whose money subsidizes counter productive policies.

The issues here are many…here are a few:

1: Treating a juvenile like an adult when he has none of the legal rights of adult. Add to that the fact that neurscience has proven that, until the mid twenties, most brains are not fully mature…..a fact that contributes to young people making non-rational decisions. Any parent knows the truth of that finding.

2: The lack of incentives in prison contributes to a lack of hope. Absense of hope is contrary to the stated mission of the prison system that is to “promote positive change in offender behavior”.

3: Extreme sentence for youths, along with mandatory minimums, totally disregard individual differences and their proven potential to change.

4: The primary purpose of incarceration is punishment based…..incapacitation… with the main focus on security and control. Underfunded educational, vocational, substance abuse and mental health programming, guarantees higher recidivism rates. The consequent costs get passed on to future victims and taxpayers.

5: Release from prison needs to be based on more than outdated and “one size fits all” policies put in place by politicians….most of whom have neither experience, or training, in how to create environments that promote scoailly responsible behavior.

We can, and need to, do better.

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.

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.