Texas judges, particularly in Harris County, are sending hundreds of adolescent, first-time violent offenders to state prison, a punishment lawmakers intended for youths considered the worst of the worst, according to a report set for release today.
“Adult jails and adult prisons are simply the wrong place to hold these kids,” says Michele Deitch, a professor at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs and author of the report "Juveniles in the Adult Criminal Justice System in Texas."
Texas law allows judges to certify as adults youths between the ages of 14 and 17 who have committed felony offenses. Once certified, they are housed in county jails while they await trial and, if convicted, they are sent the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
But young, violent offenders can also be given so-called determinate sentences of up to 40 years that begin in the Texas Youth Commission — and only continue on to adult prisons if the judge determines that is necessary.
From fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2010, Texas courts certified nearly 1,300 youths as adults. During that same time, about 860 youths received determinate sentences. According to the report, though, there was little difference in the criminality among youths sentenced to the adult system and those who were sent to youth facilities. In both cases, the majority committed a violent crime like aggravated robbery or sexual assault, and had one or no previous juvenile court cases.
In most cases, the obvious difference was where the offender was tried. Harris County courts certified twice as many juvenile offenders as adults as any other county over the four-year time period studied. Judges in Harris County certified 301 youths as adults. Dallas County, by comparison, certified 141 offenders as adults during the same time period.
The problem with sending so many youths to adult facilities, particularly those who are not repeat violent offenders, is that they are not designed to rehabilitate and educate adolescents, Deitch said. Youths who are sent to adult prisons, she said, have a 100 percent greater risk of committing future violent offenses, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They are also more likely to develop mental health problems in prison, to be physically and sexually assaulted and to commit suicide.
As lawmakers consider expanding juvenile justice reforms they started in 2007, and work to keep more youths in community-based facilities and treatment programs, Deitch said they ought to also change the laws that allow youths to spend time in adult jails and prisons. Juveniles should only be eligible for sentencing to adult prison if they have first been through the juvenile system, she said. And while youths are awaiting trial, she said, they should be confined in local juvenile facilities, not county jails that are not equipped to deal with adolescents.
But Bill Connolly, a juvenile defense lawyer in Houston, said it was lawmakers' overzealous reform efforts that likely boosted the number of young offenders being sent to adult facilities. Lawmakers dropped the eligible age for Texas Youth Commission sentences from 21 to 19. When that happened, Connolly said, prosecutors were less likely to recommend that young people get sentenced to youth facilities because they wouldn't have enough time to benefit from the rehabilitation programs that TYC offers. For example, if a young person was charged with a violent offense at age 17, he could be ordered to participate in TYC's Capital and Serious Violent Offenders Program. But the wait to get into the program is at least one year, and it takes another year to complete the program."You don't have enough time to do that," Connolly said. So prosecutors and judges are more likely to send the young offender straight to the adult system if the crime is serious.
Lawmakers have already filed some bills that would address concerns about youths in adult prisons. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said judges usually only send the worst of the worst young offenders to the adult system and that each case should be examined individually. But he submitted a measure that would allow youths who have been certified as adults to stay in juvenile facilities while they await trial. And state Reps. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, and Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, have filed measures that would limit the types of offenses that would make an offender eligible for certification as an adult.
Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said keeping youths in the juvenile system, where programs are designed to deal with their developing brains and characters, will produce better results and make Texans safer in the long run. “The bottom line is youths do not belong in adult settings,” she said.
Texas Tribune reporter Christopher Smith Gonzalez contributed reporting for this story.