Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Shifting youth to adult prisons puts Texas on wrong side of history

Grits feels a little deflated at news that the Texas Juvenile Justice Department will transfer youth prisoners to adult prisons in the Department of Criminal Justice, supposedly as "part of a push to boost security by working to remove assaultive youth," reported the Houston Chronicle. They're moving up to 35 juvenile offenders into the adult system.

It's a small number, but to the extent it gives us a window into state leaders' thinking, it's very much a move in the wrong direction.

Problem is, this approach is completely non-responsive to the recent scandals at the Gainesville State School, which supposedly is what's spurring the move. There, the problems were staff engaging in sexual predation against their charges. The assaults making headlines involved staff paying youth to assault other youth they didn't like! Staff turnover approached 40% annually because of low pay, plus understaffing created dangerous working conditions. And the location of state facilities in rural outposts meant youth had little access to mental health or drug treatment services.

That's not a problem with "assaultive youth," that's a problem with underfunded, understaffed, and unaccountable institutions.

Moreover, it's a problem that's at least as bad at TDCJ as TJJD, and probably worse for young, vulnerable inmates. When the Gainesville stories first came out, Grits observed:
These troubles mirror problems witnessed at the adult system, where sexual misconduct by staff at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is a big source of federal Prison Rape Elimination Act violations. The Texas Association Against Sexual Assault has recommended the Legislature create an independent oversight mechanism at TDCJ comparable to the Ombudsman created for TJJD after the 2007 scandals.
So TDCJ has the same problems, but TJJD has more systems in place to catch them (which is how the Gainesville scandal arose in the first place - media reports didn't surface until after four staff were indicted).

The Chronicle story tells us the governor backs the move, in addition to Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, who is quoted more prominently in the story.

But the better approach is being modeled right now by the governor in Wisconsin, Scott Walker, who is responding to a similar scandal at that state's main youth prison facility in which two guards were indicted. Instead of shifting youth into the adult system, he's following best practices identified a decade ago in Texas based on the "Missouri model," an approach that emphasizes community corrections and smaller residential units housing fewer than 48 inmates each.

Governor Abbott and state leaders in Texas, though, appear inclined in a direction contrary to the best practices followed elsewhere (and recommended by its own blue-ribbon panel a decade ago). And it's not just conservative governors like Scott Walker shifting away from big institutions toward a more modern, evidence-based approach.

This week the National Conference of State Legislators issued a set of principles regarding juvenile justice,  which included this recommendation: "Determine the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction, the age of extended jurisdiction, and the scope of transfer to the adult system in accordance with research on adolescent brain development, behavioral change and the effects on public safety."

The reference to "research on adolescent brain development" stands out here. Grits has argued that the push to raise the age of adult criminal culpability in Texas from 17 to 18 is an effort to bring Texas into the 20th century, but not the 21st. In the modern era, following the lead of brain science showing youthful brains continue developing into the mid-20s, even that age looks a little young.

Massachusetts recently raised the minimum age there for adult prosecution to 19 years old. The best evidence from neurological research, a judge in Kentucky found last year in evaluating the death penalty for young defendants, shows that the brains of 19 and 20 year olds are more like those of someone aged 15-16 than they are of someone aged 25.

In that light, Texas remains on the wrong side of history, both in continuing to charge 17 year olds as adults and in the recent shift of youthful offenders into adult prisons. Sen. Whitmire declared, "I am very positive on the plan to once and for all make Juvenile Justice safe." But we've heard that before. A quick check of the Houston Chronicle archives finds Harold Dutton, chair of the House committee overseeing TJJD, declaring to R.G. Ratcliffe in 2007 (March 11, p. A1) that Texas would fix the problem "once and for all" back then. Yet state leaders failed to execute the plan experts laid out for them, refusing to pony up for sufficient staff or smaller, residential facilities, and so here we are.

Now, once again we're hearing promises to fix the problem, but unlike Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Lone Star leaders are doubling down on outdated approaches. Texas needs to look for more appropriate models for dealing with young offenders, not more ways to ratchet them into the adult system as quickly as possible.


Anonymous said...

Okay Grits are you ready to debate the Harvard Psychologist?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1) the article is in a pop forum from a decade ago; much of the fmri work driving these conclusions has emerged since then.

2) Let's let other Harvard pschologists make the case, I don't need to.

3) From another source, see the footnotes here for a first stab at contrary conclusions.

4) Fine to promote counterarguments if you like, but in the legal realm the Supreme Court has already acknowledged the brain science in Roper. If you want an argument, dispute them, and the briefs supporting that position, in that case (and the one in Kentucky). I don't have to be the one to argue with you, much less Harvard psychologists.

5) See here for other big thinkers making the argument.

d said...

Great coverage, Grits!

U.b said...

The kids that are being sent to the adult system are a threat not only to the staff that work at these facilities but to the other children that want to change their lives.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

U.b., that can be resolved through adequate staffing (and by extension, adequate budgets), but it's non-responsive to the problems coming out of Gainesville, which involved staff predation vs. inmates. In fact, one big problem exposed was guards PAYING inmates to attack other kids. The solution being proposed (moving kids to TDCJ) doesn't match up to the problems which supposedly spurred the change.

The reforms from Scott Walker in Wisconsin are coming with expanded state investment, but Texas wants to do this on the cheap. In the juvenile justice realm, that generally results in a penny-wise, pound foolish approach.

Anonymous said...

Maybe they are a threat to the staff because the staff keeps trying to sexually abuse them...

Anonymous said...

Does the TJJD board advocate incarcerating youth offenders or do they take a different stance?

Leslie J. Smith said...

Planning And Sentencing Practice Should Be Reformed In Order To Address Culpability Issues? There is an Immediate Need for Sentencing Guidelines and Corrections Facilities Designed to Meet These Needs

Elizabeth Cauffman with the University of California, Irvine explains that the juvenile justice pendulum is swinging back from punitive/retributive justice to restorative /rehabilitative. Recent Supreme Court cases i.e., Roper v. Simmons, 2005, Graham v. Florida, 2010, Miller v. Alabama, 2012 have highlighted developmental differences between adolescents and adults. Cauffman further explains that a gap exists between what we know about development of mature judgment and how our courts handle juvenile and adult cases. She suggests that legal systems within the U.S. should be reformed and begin addressing young adults 18 to 24 years of age and make this age group more consistent with the knowledge regarding mature judgment and treatment. These issues have led to the examination of youth culpability, extended age groups, risk assessments, specialized courts and correctional facilities, sentencing guidelines, and establishing more effective reentry programs for young adults returning to the community after being held in secure confinement . .

Anonymous said...

An institution with the responsibility to promote positive behavior change, like TJJD or TDCJ, cannot adequately succeed without a well-trained staff and a mission that goes far beyond punishment. Neither of these organizations has been directed, or funded, to actually accomplish their stated mission. Consequently, our tax money is being squandered, while those responsible for maintaining the status quo make vague statements about change. It is illogical to expect the scope of change needed to come from these folks, since they have neither the clinical training, experience, vision, or commitment, to fundamentally transform both juvenile and adult correctional institutions into the best they can simply costs more than they will agree to. Add to that the fact that all this focus on the back end of the problem does nothing to deal with the front end. The systemic change required is not yet in the crosshairs.

Anonymous said...

Incorporate Reintegration Into The American Sentencing Model
The National Reentry Resource Center (July 2014) explains that it is not uncommon for rearrest rates for youth returning from confinement to be as high as 75 percent within three years of release. The Bureau of Justice Assistance reports (April 2014) that about two–thirds (67.8%) of released adult prisoners were re-arrested for a new crime within 3 years, and three-quarters (76.6%) were re-arrested within 5 years. In a working paper entitled Unlocking the Potential Alan Rosenthal, J.D. Elaine Wolf, Ph.D. suggest that if reentry planning were systematically incorporated into these six phases of criminal case processing, people involved in the criminal justice system would be more likely to reintegrate into their communities successfully and maximize their capacity for productive citizenship. To release the true potential of reentry it is suggested to transform traditional sentencing by incorporating reintegration into the American sentencing model, by adding it to the four traditional goals of sentencing: punishment, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and deterrence. On June 7, 2006, Governor George Pataki signed into law an important modification affecting sentencing in New York. Penal Law §1.05(6) has been amended to add a new goal to the traditional sentencing model that includes deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution, and incapacitation: the promotion of the defendant’s successful and productive reentry and reintegration into society (Chapter 98 of the Laws of 2006).
Data Driven Reentry: