During the 80th Texas Legislature news coverage focused on grandstanding pols rather than how proposed changes would affect the system. Now state Sen. Tommy Williams and the Harris County DA's office are complaining violent youth offenders aren't doing enough time.
"It seems unfathomable that (children who commit murder) are getting out in three years. I think the serious crimes deserve a longer punishment," said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who sits on the joint legislative committee overseeing the TYC.Truth be told, I don't see this as nearly the grave issue Sandberg's story makes it out to be. To me she's hyping the problem without adequate evidence. The article presented no recidivism data, so it's impossible to tell from her story whether releasing youth before they've served lengthy sentences harms public safety. In other words, it's premature to complain that youth offenders' sentences are too short when it's by no means clear that longer sentences reduce crime.
He vowed to make his views known to the agency's special panel that is now reviewing the criteria used in deciding parole.
Records obtained by the San Antonio Express-News show that since 2002, nearly a third of the 118 paroled offenders who received fixed TYC sentences for violent crimes served less than 30 percent of their terms. Almost three-quarters of the group served less than half their terms."
Other nations with much shorter incarceration lengths have much lower crime rates. As a South Texas Law School professor Adam Gershowitz wrote recently:
The United States incarcerates more offenders per capita than any industrialized nation in the world: three times more than Israel, five times more than England, six times more than Australia and Canada, eight times more than France, and over twelve times more than Japan. Given these ratios, it is not surprising that American prisoners convicted of violent crimes are incarcerated for five to ten times as long as their European counterparts.Yet all of those countries have much lower crime rates than the United States. So what reason do we have to believe, as Sen. Williams asserts, that incarcerating kids for long periods of time improves public safety? I've never seen such evidence, and the argument runs counter to historic approaches to juvenile justice:
Because other countries with lower incarceration rates have less overall crime, IMO Sen. Williams' premise is flawed. Why not base youth incarceration decisions on their behavior? What evidence is there that such an approach doesn't work? Why should anyone believe that long-term incarceration merely for punishment's sake reduces crime, especially for juveniles? Perhaps an approach that aims at rehabilitation is the better way to go?
"The whole premise behind the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation," said Isela Gutierrez, director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, part of the not-for-profit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Behavior is perhaps the best indicator of whether a youth is being rehabilitated, Gutierrez said.
If Sen. Williams has such evidence, he did not present it during this spring's legislative session, nor did Ms. Sandberg in the SA Express News article. Indeed, I haven't seen such research and don't think it exists. We treat youthful offenders differently in large part because they are still children (as every parent of a teen recognizes).
New scientific studies regularly emerge showing brain development in children continues through the teens. So it makes perfect sense to rely on current behavior more than past actions to assess whether additional brain development combined with rehab programs has transformed a child into a more responsible, self-disciplined and trustworthy person. That should be our goal, and without evidence there's no reason to believe Sen. Williams or the Harris County DA that longer incarceration terms will achieve it.