Category Archives: prison reform

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



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… 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.

Overwhelming Majority of Americans Support Reform

There is general agreement that there are too many teenagers and adults in prison. The link to the poll below clearly shows that an overwhelming number of Americans support significant reform to the manycriminal justoice systems. This is in stark contrast to those who have created and perpetuate these systems as the are……lawmakers of all parties. Actually that is somewhat of a simplification since there is a growing number of lawmakers, on both sids of the aisle who see the need for reform. The ad news is that they are not the majority, and thus the pace of reform continues like a snail. Hopefully this new poll will encourage those who continue to believe that “tough on crime” is the way to keep their job that the time has come to change.

When more than 75% of responders support reform, politicians need to listen….a fact that is exactly in line with their role as representatives of the people. This poll re-affirms an earlier poll by Right on Crime a part of the Texas Public Policy Foundation). That poll made it quite clear that a large majority of Texans support alternatives to incarceration. The fidings of both polls prove that a large majority of people want smart on crime to play at least as large a role as tough. There is widespread agreement that punishment has a place but that it should be fair and proportional. When the system in place mandates that a person convicted of a violent offense must servehalf their sentence (mandatory minimum) before parole consideration, that is neither fair nor proportional because each situation is different. Texas has tried the “one size fits all” approach of punishment to fit the crime. The time has come to forget the broad brush and make punishment/treatment fit the individual.

americans support criminal justice reform




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.


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.

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.

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.”

A Rational Prison System ???

A Rational Prison System ???

A Rational Prison System ??? Prisons, whether for juveniles, adults, or a combination of each, have rarely been designed using primarily rational ideas. Neither reason, nor logic, have dominated the debate about how to respond to anti-social behavior. The questions about how to deal with those identified as criminals has been driven largely by partisan ideology, soundbites, and ancient and entrenched attitudes about punishment and revenge.

Over the past decade there has been an increasing interest in making more fact based decisions in the area of criminal justice. Well worn concepts like “lock’em up and throw away the key” have begun to be questioned. Fear based policies and laws have come under scrutiny because of what they have given us: the largest prison system in the world in the land of the free. The huge cost of maintaining this system is now encouraging hardliners to question the sustainability of “tough on crime”. Instead, “smart on crime” has begun to enter the picture, and questions are being raised about locking up so many people, at great cost to everyone, without significant public safety benefits.

The 4 decade long war on drugs has been a significant factor in the bloated prison population. The accepted response to drug “crimes” has been to isolate these people in jails and prisons. Now, drug use, like alcoholism is beginning to be seen as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal one. There is also an increasing emphasis on alternatives to incarceration for a wide range of non-violent crimes. The direction this is headed in is consistent with a popular conservative idea that “prisons are for people we’re afraid of, not the one’s we’re mad at”. Once that concept is seriously  incorporated in the criminal justice system, those sent to prison will be the ones we need to be protected from. Once more reason and logic is part of system operations, those who do end up in prison will be in environments actually designed to encourage personal and social responsibility. No longer will those sent to prison simply spend their time in “warehouses” and come out the same, or worse off when they went in.

Below is a link to an article worth considering when thinking about the future of change in the criminal justice system. It does not adequately the two opposite views that have dominated the conversation about the causes of crime, but it is excellent food for thought.