Monday, August 06, 2007

TYC parole critics hype fear without evidence

I'm a little frustrated with yesterday's San Antonio Express News article by Lisa Sandberg criticizing the Texas Youth Commission parole system ("TYC parole under fire," Aug. 5). The story illustrates a knee-jerk reaction to juvenile crime that ignores evidence-based approaches to rehabilitation.

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.

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."
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.

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:

"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.

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?

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.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well Grits, as I have written and suggested before, we need to see what the Blue Ribbon Panel has suggested for TYC and we as Texans. What we do know is persons with limited Juvenile experience and cronies from TDCJ have been appointed to some very important and influencial positions in TYC. I am not even sure if I have a job as no annoucements or presentations concerning the organization have been given to date. I would like to believe in the best but I fear that TYC has become an easy place for those persons (TDCJ) with dying careers to make their last stab at being good at something. At least they did not have to apply for their jobs. They could not have as they do not and did not know anything about TYC.

A.

Anonymous said...

The law for juvenile sentenced offenders is that capital felons can get out in 10 years, 1st degree felons in 3 years, 2nd degree felons in 2 years and 3rd degree felons in 1 year. I doubt seriously that TYC has ever let a capital murderer out in 3 years, and if they did, it had to be with the approval of a juvenile court judge. The leg passed the law, TYC just implements it, or at least it used to when it had administrators that understood juvenile law and juvenile corrections philosophy.

Anonymous said...

The determinate sentence model was designed to give youth a second chance. Youth are sentenced to TDCJ, but are given a chance to turn around in TYC and possibly avoid TDCJ incarceration. The courts make that determination. If the youth does not make adequate progress in TYC, he/she is sent back to the committing court with a recommendation for transfer to TDCJ-ID. Again, the judge makes the final call. If the youth makes adequate progress in the TYC program, he/she is transferred to parole at the end of his/her minimum period of confinement.

What complicated matters recently is that when the legislature mandated that all 19 year olds would be discharged from TYC, no provision was made for those with determinate sentences. There were youth who were not appropriate for release, but there was no time allowed to schedule them on the docketts of the committing courts to recommend transfer to TDCJ-ID. They had, by law, to be transferred to TDCJ Parole Division.

The upside of all this is, however, if they fail on parole at anytime during the remainder of their sentence, they will still owe their entire sentence, with credit given only for the time they were actually incarcerated in TYC. Therefore, if a youth received a 30 year sentence and served 3 years in TYC, he/she would still owe 27 years, hard time, if revoked.

I'm with you on this one, Grits. I am sick of all the blatant sensationalism of these politicians and their media shills who are playing on the worst fears of the voting public at the expense of true justice.

If I do retire, I promise, I will work very hard to bring about the defeat of these unconscionable politicians. Old Salty

Anonymous said...

Senator Williams needs to review the statute on determinate sentencing, something his colleagues in the legislature created. TYC is just following the law. On the one hand the agency was criticized for keeping kids too long and now they are complaining that they are not being kept long enough. They clearly have not thought this through or studied the issues. The current regime know nothing about juvenile justice and react to the media reports. A TYC staff was recently terminated for implementing an administratively approved release process that was in compliance with the law. But, because of the media reports and complaints from TDCJ Parole, they cancelled kids' releases and suspended the staff. The current admin failed to assume responsibility for their decisions and failed to educate the public on the law. Likely, they are not familiar with the law.

Regarding treatment. There are few left that know anything about treatment and rehabilitation. None of the TDCJ staff do and then they put a special education person in charge of rehabilitation and a person whose primary background has been limited to sex offender treatment and who has no experience in program development, or other types of treatment (CD, mental health, etc.)

Regarding Isela's comments: Behavior is one indicator of progress, but far from the only one. Those of us who have worked in mental health know that the best psychopath or the conduct disordered kid can manage his/her behavior in a behavior management program but make little internal change. The second thing is that good family/community transition planning is essential to maintain gains made in a residential setting. There is a good deal of research on that.

Grits, I agree with you and think it is an excellent idea to study the issue further before jumping to conclusions. The article did not do service to the issue.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like that article contained some bias Grits. Someone needs to do the homework on the recidivism rates. It seems like the biggest part of the picture is missing,

Anonymous said...

Everyone needs to remember that 3 years is a lifetime for a child. Just remember how much your life changed between the age of 15 and 18!

In three short years, you go from barely being able to leave the house alone to ready for college. During this huge leap in maturity, incarcerated teens can become valuable contributiors to our society.

Or, TYC can turn them into caged animals if they persist with their focus on punishment that benefits no one.

News reporters should stop and think before they seek a Pulitzer purly for the sake of sensationalism.

Anonymous said...

Well said 9:14.

Anonymous said...

Oops...I meant 9:12.

Anonymous said...

As usual, politicians playing the crime card and the MSM playing the hype to sell papers game, simply ignore empirical evidence from the crimological theories. Life-course theories are now just looking at (FINALLY) how psychological, biological and genetics play into crime. While some people commit crime by choice (free will) there are others such, as some juveniles, that are not wired that way.

Politicians and the MSM. Unbelievable!

Anonymous said...

How many 19+ year olds does TYC still have in facilities? When Slick Rick signed the bill stating TYC could not hold 19-year olds, they should have been released to parole, as per the law. Instead, these 19-year olds are in TYC, waiting for a court date, for which the judges are not sure whether or not they have jurisdiction. Seems the lege has created quite a fiasco with their knee jerk reactions. And our current administration is clueless about how to handle this - other than suspending those who follow the law.

As for the rehabilitation department - what rehabilitation? Where is that new treatment program - the one that doesn't start with "R"?? Hell, it hasn't started with anything.

Media hype and ignorance - that's what's running TYC now.

Anonymous said...

To say a determinate sentenced youth can be released on parole for "good behavior" is completely distorting the reality of the process. Youth have to be making adequate progress in treatment. At the school I have observed the treatment staff are vigilant in exposing DSO youth who are just faking their way throught the Resocialization program (oops, i mean the transitional treatment program)and not releasing them on parole. It was the legislatures mandate to manage the population by lowering the age to 19 (i.e. not fix a broken system) that has screwed things up. Many of the youth who have committed these serious crimes are not mature enough to make significant gains in tretment before age 18. Now it will be too little too late for many of them by the time they turn 19. The legislature should have thought this through. TYC has relatively trong recidivism data, especially for youth who complete specialized treatment (e.g. the former Capitol and Serious Violent Offender Program).

The articles act like TYC doesn't send any of these kids to prison. Give me a break.

Isela said...

Absolutely, 9:11. The quote in the article wasn't quite on point with what I actually said. I appreciate your clarification.

Anonymous said...

Don't you love it when a plan comes together? Scott, the indented portion of your initial comment comes from the SA Express article? I ask only because of the glaring error (like so many such errors in the MSM, terms like inmates and guards come to mind). As Old Salty pointed out, nobody sentenced to TYC ever; it is and remains a committment; some youth, after being certified to stand trial as adults are given Determinate Sentences to TDCJ, but due to their age, start in TYC. The student can stay in TYC as long as he is making progress and the other criteria, such as his age and the severity of the crime are met. Done well, the process can be awesome... students who have killed people do not play the same games as other children. To work well, casemanagers and Special Services Committee members must be willing to send a "kid" to the pen not just for doing something wrong, but also for not doing right, i.e., not showing progress. Like getting time off for good behavior, the effect comes from KNOWING you are going to spend 10 years in the pen unless you turn your day to day life around. That HAS to be backed up in TYC for it to work. The argument back when we had the figures was: it costs $44,000 a year to keep a kid in TYC; it costs $13,000 per year for TCDJ. If the kid is making progress, it is worth every cent.... you save in police, trial, incarceration, family care expenses, not to mention the prevention of direct loss to future victims and the increased taxes off a worker in the community. If this kid is not making progress, send him to the pen... use the saved money to pay for the programs like Emotionally Disturbed, Sub abuse, etc that are underfunded.
Best example I can think of involved a student with a 10 to 40 year sentence... his minimum length of confinement ended the day before his 21st birthday, so he was able to go out to TDCJ parole rather than an automatic transfer to the pen; all had to do was the proverbrial spit on the sidewalk over the next 7 years to go to the pen, starting at year 4 of 40. That's been about 4 years now... he is still in the community.
What is truely "Unfathomable" to use the terms of the Woodlands senator is that a) he is an adult who participates in the creation of laws he apparently knows nothing about, then has a hissy fit cause it didn't work out the way he wanted it to b) he ADMITS in public he apparently had his head up his ass (or somebody's) when all the testimony was going on and c) he is an adult who runs for office as TOMMY...okay, my bad... he gets elected with a diminutive for a name.... speaks sadly for his constituents.
I should not be surprised; this is the same senate that has a colleague arrested for carrying a loaded firearm into an airport and gets off when his friend the judge laughs it off. Might be revealing to report how many people's mistakes were laughed off. Hey Tommy, are you suggesting only juveniles should pay the price for crimes, or is it just everybody but your colleagues?
Old Salty: got a suggestion, if you don't retire and I don't get out, how about we do everything in our power to get those jerks replaced ANYWAY!!!!

Anonymous said...

From a review article by Glenn Loury: "imprisonment rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen because we have become progressively more punitive: not because crime has continued to explode (it hasn’t), not because we made a smart policy choice, but because we have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment."

here:http://bostonreview.net/BR32.4/loury.html

Anonymous said...

Just look who has added his input, DA Rosenthal. He has no idea what he does to peoples lives and does not care. All he wants is to say the right words to get re-elected. I for one think he has done enough damage to Harris County and needs to find a real job or retire.

Children need guidance and some of them have no chance of getting that at home. Instead of incarcerating them and abusing them, give them an education and some self esteem and when they are ready to go home, make sure they are with stable families and know the Lord and how good He is and His love for them no matter what they have done.

We don't need Rosenthal and Williams to judge children, they need to look in the mirror and judge themselves.

Anonymous said...

Lots of really good points here, in the original post and the comments. My two cents:

1. The rehab process doesn't stop when a kid is released, right? Ideally it continues in the community with supervision and services. Of course, the senator and DA quoted here clearly don't care much about that.

2. Old Salty makes a great point, as do others, about determinate sentencing's "last chance" for more serious offenders. The new law has thrown a monkey wrench into that, and may well result in increased transfers of youthful offenders to adult prisons.

3. Grits mentions the "teen brain" research, which has gotten a lot of attention in the last several years. It was one of the premises behind the recent Supreme Court decision outlawing the juvenile death penalty, and needs to become a greater part of the policy discussion on TYC.

4. As many posters note, it is irritating and a little dishonest to see the SA article demonize the kids without presenting evidence on recidivism. Remember the early 1990s "super-predator" scare? That's how Texas got Governor Bush and the 1995 juvenile justice bill that expanded the use of prisons to begin with.

Evidently some people still think that way, and frankly, it is that kind of thinking that landed TYC with its current administration and its focus on damage control and increasing security.

BTW, here's something on recidivism stats that may make current TYC staff chuckle. There was a time when TYC based its recidivism rates only on kids who re-offended as juveniles. They stopped keeping track of them after adulthood. So they regularly presented really low rates, like 15%.

Bill Bush, UNLV

Anonymous said...

Bill,
Regarding recidivism rates, that's how the state of Missouri and its much touted program counts its recidivism rates. It does not factor in crimes committed when the kids become adults.

Anonymous said...

Good point, 12:01! That in addition to comparing a state with the population of Missouri to our state with its population, is like comparing programs in Canada with programs in the US. (Something that some pols frequently do.)

Anonymous said...

The remarks by Sen. Williams are typical of an attitude that isn’t concerned with the issue of public safety or of the effectiveness of rehabilitation. The key is in his comment, “I think the serious crimes deserve a longer punishment.” To someone with that mindset, talk of rehabilitation, changed behavior, public safety, or effectiveness of shorter incarceration rates is wasted. What they are saying is that the offender has not been punished severely enough to satisfy their personal sense of right and wrong, therefore the correct thing to do is keep them imprisoned longer until that indeterminate point is reached. No amount of logic or statistical proof will ever penetrate past that particular cement block. Unfortunately that attitude is pervasive throughout TDCJ, the Texas Board of Pardons & Paroles, many legislators, and much of the public. Case in point, my son just recently completed 8 & 5 year concurrent sentences for intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault. He was a first time-offender with no previous criminal history and no history of substance abuse. He served his full time without a single disciplinary incident. At the time of his release, he had accumulated over 16 years credit for time served, good time, and work time. Per the Board’s own guidelines, he rated as a 4, low risk parole prospect. His parole file was filled with support letters from family, friends, teachers, pastors, civic leaders, and attorneys. Two of his jury members also wrote that the jury fully expected that my son would be paroled at his first eligibility. He and his wife own their own home (place to live) in the same town in which he was born and raised and where his family also lives (strong support network), and he had letters of job offers in his file (good prospects for employment). Despite all these positives and the presence of all the factors the parole board members like to tout as important in their posturing to inmate families, he was denied parole three times and finally given a serve-all. When I (finally) spoke directly with Juanita Gonzalez, commissioner of the Gatesville office, after his last denial and asked if she had considered all the information in his file, her repeated answer was, “Somebody was hurt and somebody died. That’s all I need to know.” Several more questions elicited the same mantra-like response with no other reason given. As I say, logic or any other argument will never persuade someone with a personal agenda and a heavy bent toward punishment first and foremost above all else.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately we live in that part of the Bible belt that only reads those parts of the Bible that have to do with wrath and punishment, and not those parts that have to do with justice and mercy. We like to read Genesis and Leviticus, but avoid the prophets and the words of Jesus (even though most of us brag about being his disciples).

People like that eye for an eye stuff while not realizing that that particular adjurement was an improvement over the prevailing pagan "justice" of the time.

Politicians like Williams prey on the worst instincts of the voting public, yet they love to be photographed coming out of church on Sunday. Jesus had some very strong words for folks like that: hypocrites and white-washed tombs come to mind.

Anonymous said...

A caseworker at Evins told me a couple of years ago that administrators would rush the paperwork of more disruptive kids in order to get them out of the facility more quickly, while dragging on the paperwork of the less disruptive kids. It was their way of keeping down disruptions in the population.

Of course, this is hearsay and would be pretty much impossible to verify. Still, that's the first thing that came to mind when I heard about serious offenders serving shorter sentences, especially when there are so many kids who go in on minor charges and get extended.

Anonymous said...

4:29...that's just one opinion of one caseworker...you need to hear from others before deciding that is true. I am not a caseworker, but I doubt that information is true. I've seen behaviorally challenged youth hang at TYC for as many as 5 years!

Anonymous said...

It's also true that kids can come to TYC with one serious crime and few other problems, but kids with less serious crimes will typically only come with either several offenses or be disruptive in other programs.

Anonymous said...

Youth with determinate sentences are usually the least disruptive of all youth on campus. Particularly when they are close to, or past their 16th birthday - that is because they have the most to lose. Most of them realize that they got a second chance when they were sent to TYC instead of TDCJ.

Sen Williams makes it clear that he has no interest in rehabilitation - he is all about punishment. People tend to forget the fact that sooner or later, all these kids are going to be release back into society. Would you rather have a young serious offender who has made changes in his life released after 3 years, or would you rather condemn him to 10-15 years in prison as punishment and have him get out at 25-30 years of age a hardened, incorrigible and still relatively young criminal?

At some point we are going to have to pay the piper. I say, let's put maximum effort in the front end in trying to turn these kids around before they become hardened criminals. Some of them don't want to change, and they need to move on to the big time, but all lives are precious, so every one we help to turn his/her life around makes the effort worth it - not just for the kid, but for his potential future victims. Old Salty