image_pdfimage_print

These Approaches Help Young Fathers Leaving the Criminal Justice System

Becoming a father for the first time can be difficult for anyone, but when you do so in your teens or early 20s and have been incarcerated, it can be overwhelming. The right supports — stable housing, reliable networks, ties to employment, knowing how to build skills in fatherhood and healthy relationships — are essential.

This was certainly true for 22-year-old James* and 20-year-old Marcus*. Both became fathers before their incarceration; both wanted to be the best dads they could be, and both needed help upon release to do so.

After being released from prison, James joined the T.O.R.I. Program, which offered family reunification classes and employment support. During the 12-month program he learned new skills to provide for and nurture his daughter, like how to appropriately resolve conflict and effectively co-parent.

Marcus enrolled in the RIDGE Project while in prison, which offered training to help build character, leadership and job preparedness skills. Upon release, he continued to work with his caseworker to complete job applications and prepare for interviews. Within weeks, he found a job and an apartment.  

T.O.R.I and RIDGE are both faith-based reentry programs funded by federal, state, local and private funds. Each helps young fathers build their parenting and relationships skills, find employment and change the course of their lives. T.O.R.I. was founded in Texas in 2005 to provide holistic wraparound services for men and women after incarceration. Since its inception, T.O.R.I. has provided assistance in getting housing, employment, education and health care, among other services, to more than 10,000 fathers and mothers.

The RIDGE Project, with offices throughout Ohio, was co-founded by Ron Tijerina following his own experience as an incarcerated father. RIDGE provides classes on fatherhood, leadership, healthy relationships and job preparedness inside prisons. It also provide referrals for housing, mental health and addiction recovery upon release. RIDGE has served more than 14,000 individuals since its inception in 2000.

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funded 103 fatherhood grants, nine of which have focused on reentering fathers. Additionally, since 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice has funded 16 fatherhood/reentry grants. These investments come at a time where more than 5 million children (7 percent of all children under 18) live with a parent who went to jail or prison. And about 92 percent of all incarcerated parents are fathers; some estimate that as many as 30 percent of incarcerated teen males are also fathers.  

As many state and federal programs continue to strategically invest in employment and parenting supports for returning young fathers, promising approaches have begun to emerge. The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse has developed resources for human service professionals who support fathers and families, including those impacted by incarceration. Their Responsible Fatherhood Toolkit, which includes modules on working with incarcerated and returning fathers, suggests that service providers:

  • Offer pre-release assistance with child support, education and job training to prepare dads for reentry.
  • Encourage dads to write letters to their children on a regular basis, create books or art for their children, and read a book to their child, either over the phone or via audio or video recording.
  • Show fathers the value in developing a working relationship with their child’s mother and provide them with skills to improve this relationship.
  • Connect with the mother and family before a father’s release.
  • Provide relationship skills classes for couples when possible, and link fathers to community services upon release.
  • Develop relationships with local employers to help dads with employment opportunities.
  • Counsel men to be upfront with potential employers about their criminal record.

Programs like RIDGE and T.O.R.I. are providing important support services to young fathers and their children — to help break the cycle of generational incarceration. They provide parenting and healthy relationships skills training, job readiness and placement support, mentoring and case management to maintain communication channels within families during incarceration and grow them upon release.  

*Names changed

Eugene Schneeberg, is a senior fatherhood & families technical specialist at ICF, where he works on technical assistance and outreach activities related to Responsible Fatherhood, Prisoner Reentry and workforce programs. He is the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

New Juvenile Mental Health Court in Texas Helps Youth Recover As They Are Held Accountable

Over two decades ago, as a favor to a friend, I walked into the very juvenile courtroom that I now have the privilege of presiding over on a daily basis. A racquetball buddy of mine found himself in need of a defense attorney for his son. When I walked into the juvenile courtroom to familiarize myself with the process prior to taking the youngster’s case, I knew right then and there that I had found my home away from home.

From day one, those alleged “juvenile delinquents” moved me in a way I am hard-pressed to describe. The young people in juvenile court are resilient, talented, unique unto themselves and capable of stunning greatness. They should not be defined nor stigmatized by the acts that brought them into the juvenile justice system.

That is not to say that they should not be held accountable for their choices. I believe young people will accept and respond to fair consequences and will react in kind if we set our expectations of them at the high watermark.

As much as I enjoy the daily docket, my heart soars in fulfilling a new role, presiding judge of the Juvenile Mental Health Court, SOAR. SOAR Court was the brainchild of Laura Prillwitz, deputy director of the Denton County Juvenile Probation Department. The theory behind this specialty court is that through intense services, court involvement, recommendations of a treatment team and community involvement, we can divert medium- to high-risk children with mental illnesses away from placement and instead keep them in the communities with their families.

In doing so, we can offer services and interventions not only to the child, but to everyone involved in the child’s life. Part of our mission is to build relationships between the court-impacted families and treatment providers and community resources so that when probation ends, the family is still functional and connected to local resources and assistance in their communities.

The children in SOAR have a diagnosed mental illness. Not to in any way diminish the impact of certain mental illnesses, but unlike many mental health courts, we focus on the more serious mental illnesses such as mood disorders rather than something like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. SOAR Court is not a substitute for children who are “unfit to proceed” or who lack “responsibility for their conduct” (Texas statutory terms).

No child should be expected to plead true to an offense if she does not have the cognitive ability to understand the proceedings and assist in her defense or appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct or to “conform [her] conduct to the requirements of law” (Texas statutory definitions found in Chapter 55 of the Texas Family Code). The children in SOAR Court must be competent to enter pleas of “true” and not be entitled to the juvenile version of the “insanity defense.”

Children may be referred to SOAR by the prosecution, probation officers, community members such as police agencies and teachers, parents or the child’s attorney. The screening process is intense and involves a behavioral health assessment or psychological evaluation, application, interview and consent of the SOAR treatment team.

Once a child and family are admitted into SOAR, they will begin a journey involving individual and group therapy, family therapy, parenting classes, assessment and reassessment, participation in programs to develop social and self-advocacy skills, educational assistance and the responsibility of appearing in open court to articulate challenges and successes. In open court, each child and parent/guardian stands in front of a whole courtroom full of supporters and other SOAR participants to explain what events or conditions have been hardships since we last met and what experiences have been positive.

Incentives and sanctions are handed out in this open court setting. Such incentives and sanctions have been discussed and agreed upon in advance during a treatment team meeting. The treatment team consists of Ms. Prillwitz, a case manager, a probation officer, a state’s attorney, a defense attorney and myself. Examples of incentives include lessening of restrictions, praise by the team and the court, expansion of privileges and receipt of certificates of accomplishment. Extra community service, essay writing, restricted curfews and, as a last resort and sparingly used, detention are examples of sanctions.

SOAR consists of four phases. The first is orientation, assessment, rapport building and treatment planning. The treatment plans devised by our probation officer and caseworker are something to behold: very much individualized, intense and subject to review as the child and family progress. Stabilization comprises phase two of SOAR, followed by phase three, a transition phase wherein court involvement, probation and caseworker contact, and the intensity of services and counseling is reduced. The last phase is our aftercare and maintenance phase.

Our SOAR Court started on Nov. 1, 2016. Thus far no child has been removed from the court, and we have had one successful graduate. To call her a success is to diminish what she actually accomplished. Our first graduate progressed from being nonvocal in court to becoming a self-advocating, self-correcting, selfless member of her community — helping people in her neighborhood and church, and even block walking for a city council candidate. We see more such accomplishments in her future and in the futures of other SOAR participants.

So you might be asking what SOAR means. It means whatever it means to you and, more importantly, whatever it means to the young people in our court. The treatment team views this as a joint endeavor between us and the families. We do not propose to know all the answers, but we want to work with the families so that we can exercise trauma-informed care while focusing on strengths.

The concept behind Ms. Prillwitz’s vision was assuredly sound. Her implementation of this program was nothing short of amazing. The path to approval of and funding for a specialty court such as this is certainly not easy and involved consent from the prosecuting attorney’s office and approval of the commissioner’s court and governor’s office. However, it is all worth the effort. Now it is up to our treatment team to do all we can to help the children and families in our court SOAR!

Kimberly McCary is the judge of Denton County Court at Law Number One, Sitting as a Juvenile Court, and the judge of the Denton County Juvenile Mental Health Court, SOAR. Before that she  was in private practice, specializing in juvenile defense work and serving as a municipal court judge.

It’s More Than Time to Raise the Age in Michigan

In Michigan, 17-year-olds are not allowed to buy lottery tickets, get a tattoo, rent a car or hotel room or drop out of school. They can’t vote, serve on a jury or sign a legal contract either, presumably because they don’t possess the requisite maturity to make adult-level decisions. This distinction, however, is tossed out the window if a 17-year-old breaks the law. Suddenly, they are adults, facing devastating repercussions that can come with an adult conviction.

That’s because Michigan is one of only five states that automatically consider 17-year-olds adults for any offense. In the past decade, more than 20,000 youth under age 18 have been charged as adults in Michigan.  

The majority of these 17-year-olds were charged with nonviolent offenses, and most had no previous involvement in the juvenile justice system. But in Michigan, a first-time mistake can lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences.

Despite the inherent dangers of placing a child in prison, more than half the 17-year-olds convicted as adults were confined in adult facilities. Research shows that youth in adult jails and prisons are more likely to experience sexual victimization and physical violence, and more likely to commit suicide. Even exposure and proximity to violence can severely disrupt the course of healthy physical, emotional and intellectual development in teens.

It is not surprising, then, that youth convicted as adults have worse physical and mental health outcomes over their lifetimes than those who enter the juvenile justice system. Their problems are compounded by the fact that youth with criminal records have a harder time accessing housing, furthering their education and securing long-term employment.

Youth with adult convictions are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend more violently, than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. If the goal of our justice system truly is public safety, then directing these young people to rehabilitative youth services is a far better choice.

So, why are 17-year-olds considered adults in the first place? Because that’s how our system was created in 1908 — the year the first Ford Model T automobile was introduced. A century later, Michigan desperately needs a new model for adjudicating youth.

Michigan’s juvenile justice system isn’t perfect but it does strive to continuously make itself better. Over the past decade, some juvenile courts have begun embracing evidence-based practices that are proven to reduce crime and improve outcomes for children and their families.

During the same time span that tens of thousands of 17-year-olds were systematically funneled into the adult criminal justice system, Michigan’s innovative juvenile justice system managed to cut detention and out-of-home placement rates by 40 percent. We have seen the emergence of high-quality diversion and community-based programs that allow kids to stay in school and receive treatment for their entire families. Unfortunately, 17-year-olds who commit crimes are prohibited from accessing these services; their options are adult probation, jail or prison.

Michigan’s juvenile system already serves 17-year-olds who entered their jurisdiction prior to their 17th birthday. In fact, the juvenile court can maintain jurisdiction until one’s 19th or 21st birthday, depending on the offense. Probation and facility staff are already trained to work with this age group and offer successful programming designed to meet their developmental and behavioral health needs.

This is important because we know that adolescence is a period of significant developmental growth, characterized by impulsivity, risk-taking and strong influence by peers. As part of normal human development, young people experience rapid physiological and psychological changes that do not fully mature until well beyond age 18.

These changes establish the architecture that will eventually allow young adults to temper risk-taking behaviors, evaluate costs and benefits and fully grasp the consequences of their actions. As such, youth are far more amenable to rehabilitative programs and behavior modification during these formative years. Conversely, harsh treatment during adolescence can further solidify a child’s trajectory down the wrong path.

Experts estimate that 90 percent of justice-involved youth have experienced at least one traumatic event. In Michigan, the vast majority of youth convicted as adults have had a friend or family member killed, domestic violence or substance abuse in the home, multiple foster home placements or parental incarceration. Rather than retraumatizing youth by sentencing them to prison, we should support them with juvenile justice services that build their coping and resilience skills and teach them accountability.

In the past 10 years, numerous other states have raised the age of jurisdiction, citing improved public safety, greater access to children’s services and better outcomes for youth and their families. The other four states that prosecute 17-year-olds as adults — Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia and Texas — are also considering legislative changes to raise the age.

The proposed legislation in Michigan would continue to allow for the “waiver” of a 17-year-old into the adult system, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Those youth would be housed in a juvenile facility until they reach the age of majority, and then sent to an adult prison.

Why hasn’t Michigan raised the age yet? The short answer: money and a lack of political will. During legislative hearings in 2016, every single stakeholder group — from prosecutors to judges to facility staff — clearly stated that raising the age was the “right thing to do.” The big question was, “How do we pay for it?”

Other states have managed to pay to raise the age and, as it turns out, at a much lower cost than initially anticipated. In Illinois, the overall cost of the system actually went down after raising the age.

It is true that Michigan’s funding system poses unique challenges. The state pays the full cost for inmates in the adult criminal justice system, while counties pay costs in the juvenile justice system with the state reimbursing half of eligible expenses. Counties rightly fear they may get saddled with massive costs if 17-year-olds automatically come into their systems, and that serving additional youth will impact the quality of their existing services.

There are data limitations as well. But none of this excuses legislators and other policymakers from finding solutions that nearly every other state has come up with — solutions that will enhance public safety, protect existing services and help more troubled youth turn their lives around. We have the brainpower to figure out the funding. Now we just need the willpower.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves one important question: Have I done everything I can today to prevent a child from being harmed? With each passing day, young people are forced into an adult justice system that does not address their needs and, in fact, exposes them to significant physical harm and psychological trauma. For their well-being, for the safety and protection of our communities, it’s time to raise the age in Michigan.

Paul Elam, Ph.D., is the president of Public Policy Associates, Inc. and has worked on national, state and local efforts to create fair and effective juvenile justice policies and practices. He is a board member of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and a consultant to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice.

Mary King is executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. She previously served as community coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, where she engaged key stakeholders in a unified effort to provide evidence-based services for returning citizens.

Plummeting Youth Crime Demands New Solutions, Thinking

In 1990, in California’s 15 largest cities, 373 youths (in a population ages 10 to 17 of 850,000) were arrested for homicide. In 2015, in those same cities (now with 1.1 million youth), 21 youths were arrested for homicide — a rate decline of 94 percent.

Over the last 25 years, gun killings of teenagers in California’s urban centers fell nearly 80 percent; in New York City, they declined by 90 percent.

Such impossible decreases look like typos, but they’re real. They are repeated in city after city and state after state, where growing, racially diversifying youth populations accompany astonishing reductions in crime and other serious problems.

The millennial generation, forecast to bring “adolescent superpredators,” instead brought a stunning anti-crime revolution that challenges long-held assumptions.

From 1990 to 2016, juvenile arrest rates declined by 73 percent nationally, including large declines in all reporting states. Arrests for violent offenses plunged by two-thirds. Homicide arrests of youth decreased from nearly 4,000 per year in the early 1990s to under 900 in 2016. Twenty of the 35 reporting states – including California, Texas, New Jersey, and Michigan – saw youth homicide arrests plunge 75 percent or more.

In California, a harbinger of national trends, the justice system is rapidly disappearing from young lives. As the youth population grew by one million from 1980 to 2016 and became increasingly diverse, juvenile arrests plummeted from 286,000 to 63,000. All offenses — felony, misdemeanor and status — have fallen to all-time lows. California’s state youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Justice, has seen its budget cut 70 percent since 1995 as youth incarceration dropped 93 percent and eight of 11 state detention facilities closed. In juvenile halls and camps, more than 7,000 beds lie empty.

No one knows why these hugely encouraging trends are happening. Instead, we’re seeing more recycled "teenage brain” and “adolescent risk" nonsense of the type that has proven devastatingly wrong and perpetrated destructive policies. Like a Greek play with predetermined lines marching to inevitable tragedy, we let outmoded agendas and prejudices stifle honest debate again and again.


Figure 1. Declining rates of criminal arrests of youth (under age 18) by state, 2016 v 1996 (includes all violent, property, drug, sex, other felonies and misdemeanors, and status offenses).

Source:  FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 1995, 2016.  Notes: This figure includes the 35 states with reports to UCR for both 1996 and 2016. Arrest totals are adjusted by the proportion of jurisdictions reporting to UCR by state and year. U.S. Bureau of the Census data for populations ages 10-17 are used to calculate rates.


Even though 21 percent of teens live in poverty compared to 11 percent of middle-agers, more Californians age 40-49 (186,000 in 2015) and 50-59 (128,000) are now getting arrested for felonies and misdemeanors than those under age 20 (123,000 in 2015; 105,000 in 2016). Adolescents can no longer be called “crime-prone.” Crime rates among 18- to 19-year-olds resemble those of 35-year-olds; age 15-17 is like 50.

It’s a whole new world. How are authorities responding to the youth crime revolution’s exciting new opportunities? The prevailing view pretends the decadeslong plummet in crime by youth isn’t happening; that crime, guns and violence remain youthful stupidities. Reading major reports and commentaries these days is like retreating 20, 50, even 100 years into the past.

As teenage crime falls to historic lows, backwards-looking interests are reviving 19th-century myths that “teenage brains are neurologically wired" and “biologically driven" to crime and risk as some "new science." Malarkey. Real scientific reviews show that the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) underlying “brain science” cannot be reliably interpreted or replicated, invalidating thousands of studies.

The premature embrace of poorly grounded psychological and biological notions has the potential to harmfully expand youth and young adult detention by justifying investment in new and “better” lock-ups. For example, California hired a private firm (Campbell Consulting) to rehash developmental clichés and recommend yet another set of “therapeutic” prisons while ignoring young people’s massive crime drop.

Demeaning all 60 million youth and young adults as brain-miswired criminals in order to win lenient treatment for the dwindling few who commit serious crimes isn’t reform — it’s demagoguery. Self-flatteries that “adolescents are not like adults,” while great fun at conference workshops, dodge the uncomfortable reality that crime by youth is a function of adult-imposed poverty, abuse and its trauma sequelae, and troubled caretakers, not being young.

The few commentators who admit real-life trends typically credit their local initiative or pet solution. However, we now see there was no unique Minneapolis gun-violence reduction or “Boston Miracle.” (Nor can my group take credit for the unheralded “San Francisco miracle:” juvenile murders down 80 percent from 1992 to 1999, including 15 months with zero under-16 gun killings). Crime and shootings among youth fell substantially everywhere regardless of what locals did.

The behavior of young people themselves brought down crime and boosted education achievement dramatically. How else do we explain huge drops in youth crime, violence, murder and gun killings in Idaho and Connecticut, West Virginia and Washington, Oklahoma and California, New Jersey and Utah — states with widely varying conditions and policies? We elders did little to relieve unconscionable youth poverty, student debt and addiction and crime epidemics afflicting their parents. Grabbing credit for improvements sabotages reasoned evaluation.

This isn’t “superpredator” 1995, “broken-windows” 1982 or “biological-determinism” 1895. Is the adult brain capable of comprehending changed realities, or is it doomed to lag decades behind, indulging cosmetic system-tinkerings and pleasing orthodoxies to preserve archaic institutions?

Of course we can change. Biological determinism doesn’t dictate thinking, young or old. We need the dynamic, modern discourse 2017’s young people deserve.

Mike Males is senior research fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. He is author of “Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities.”

Some State Laws Slow Resentencings Despite Miller v. Alabama Decision

While the man behind the landmark decision that ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles waits for a new sentence, other inmates given the same term are getting a shot at eventual freedom.

Evan Miller went back before a judge in his hometown of Moulton, Alabama, for a three-day resentencing hearing March 13. Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig’s decision is still pending.

But the Supreme Court ruling that bears Miller’s name is already bearing fruit for other Alabama inmates serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were 18. For them, the process can be difficult, slow and vary county by county. And thanks to a 2016 state law, they may have a long wait for a parole hearing even if they succeed.

For example, the July 31 decision declaring juvenile lifer Richard Kinder eligible for parole came nine months after a hearing before a judge in Birmingham, attorney Richard Jaffe said.

“The judge wanted to be thorough and know every inch of it — every document, every record, and there were thousands and thousands of pages,” said Jaffe, who defended Kinder in his 1984 trial and served as co-counsel in his resentencing.

Joy Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, said about 70 other state inmates are eligible for new sentencing hearings under the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision and its 2016 follow-up, Montgomery v. Louisiana, which declared the Miller ruling retroactive.

So far, 20 of them have been resentenced to life with a chance at parole, said Eddie Cook, a spokesman for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

State Rep. Jim Hill, a former judge who pushed to bring Alabama’s capital sentencing law into line with the Miller decision, said he has urged his old colleagues to get on with the task at hand.

“I have certainly had judges call me and ask, ‘Do I need to have rehearings?’ And my answer to them is, ‘Sure. You must. Go ahead and schedule it and get it done,’” said Hill, a Republican who chairs the state House Judiciary Committee.

Alabama’s new capital sentencing law, passed in 2016, also requires that teens convicted of capital murder serve 30 years before becoming eligible for release. Since Kinder has been imprisoned more than 30 years, he now has the right to a parole hearing, Jaffe said.

But other juvenile lifers will face more years behind bars even if they succeed in getting their chance at parole. That would include Miller himself, who was convicted in 2006.

That 30-year requirement isn’t the most stringent, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. At least two states — Texas and Nebraska — require a 40-year minimum. But it’s tougher than others: West Virginia allows inmates to get a hearing after 15 years; Nevada, 20; and South Dakota leaves the issue entirely up to a judge.

And the Miller decision barred only the automatic imposition of a life-without-parole sentence for a teen killer. Judges can still hand down that term after weighing the evidence. But the justices required them to consider a teen’s "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change," and the follow-up Montgomery decision limits the punishment to teens whose crimes show “permanent incorrigibility.”

“It’s going to apply to the rarest of the rare cases,” Jaffe said.

Kinder has served nearly 33 years of a life-without-parole sentence for a killing committed when he was 17.

Kinder, then 17, was convicted of capital murder in the 1983 killing of 16-year-old Kathleen Bedsole during a robbery and kidnapping. As an accomplice, Kinder was spared the death penalty, but got life without parole. The 21-year-old gunman, David Duren, went to the electric chair in 2000, having dropped his appeals after a religious conversion.

Jaffe called Kinder’s resentencing “excruciating” and “heart-wrenching.” It featured testimony from Bedsole’s boyfriend, who survived his wounds that night. But guards and teachers at the prison where Kinder has been locked up testified that he has been a model prisoner. His disciplinary record includes only one infraction, and he earned a high school equivalency diploma, an associate’s degree from a community college and a trade school diploma in furniture refinishing.

In addition, Duren’s attorney signed an affidavit recounting that his client had said he made the decision to shoot Bledsoe and her boyfriend without telling Kinder, and that Kinder had told him there “was no need to shoot.” Jaffe said Circuit Judge Teresa Pulliam found Kinder “was not only rehabilitatable, but had been rehabilitated.”

Pulliam has scheduled several other hearings for inmates convicted in Jefferson County, the state’s largest, said Michael Hanle, president of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. But for convicts in other counties, there’s little movement, he said.

“We’re not quick to the table,” said Hanle, who is also Jaffe’s law partner. Rural counties especially “are not moving as quickly as in some other jurisdictions, and they’re having a little more difficult time.”

Many judges aren’t eager to reduce sentences, and defense lawyers are often court-appointed and lack the resources to assemble their case. But the biggest obstacle is time, he said.

“Some of these guys have been in prison 20, 25, 30, 35 years, and a lot has happened during that time,” Hanle said. Finding witnesses becomes harder, and it’s more difficult to present testimony that would point toward a lighter term.

“And of course, a defendant has a lifetime literally in the Department of Corrections, which comes with its ups and downs,” he said. “Some of them have gone on to do great things as far as their education, training and rehabilitation. Others have had problems, and all those things are going to be brought back up during the resentencing.”

Hill said the judges he knows “all want to follow the law, whether they like it or don’t like it.”

“I think it’s a necessity that we do it,” he added. “It’s one of those things that when you see what the situation is, you need to address it. It took us a couple of years to address it, but we did, and I’m very glad that we did.”

Miller is represented by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s executive director, did not respond to a request for comment.

Nationwide, about 2,500 inmates are eligible for new hearings under the Miller and Montgomery decisions. It’s not clear how many of them have had those hearings, but states well beyond Alabama have been slow to schedule them, said Josh Rovner, a juvenile justice advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project.  

“While there are certainly states that have sharp declines — sometimes because state supreme courts required it — in many cases, the states barely budged in the number of people serving life without parole for things they did as a juvenile,” Rovner said.

For example, Iowa has moved quickly to resentence inmates eligible for new hearings under Miller, and it has eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed by juveniles altogether, Rovner said. But in Arkansas, a judge recently struck down the state’s new sentencing law because it failed to provide for individualized hearings. And the three states with the most juvenile life-without-parole sentences — Michigan, Louisiana and Pennsylvania — “really dragged their feet on this,” he said.

“The facts are rarely in question,” Rovner said. “The question is what is the juvenile’s maturity, involvement in the offense, what was his family life like — these are questions that are able to be answered.” Caseloads and procedures might move at different paces in some places, but he said waiting five years since the Miller decision “is preposterous.”  


Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

Life Sentences, Long Sentences Imposed on Youth Need 2nd Look

Decades of research from the fields of criminology and adolescent brain science find that the decisions made in youth — even very unwise decisions — do not crystallize criminality. Instead, as young people age and mature they develop the capacity to make different choices.

Fortunately, more informed policies have begun to replace the punishments that proliferated during the 1990s when fear of “superpredators” and calls for “adult time, adult crime” dominated youth crime policy. The incarceration rate for youth in juvenile and adult systems soared then. Today, youth incarceration in juvenile facilities is now half its level of 20 years ago. Driven by the work of advocates, legislators, researchers and judges, many now readily acknowledge that the juvenile justice system should be used sparingly and only for those who truly need confinement.

Based mostly on the adolescent brain science discoveries that concluded that executive functioning is not fully developed until adulthood, in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty for juveniles violated the 8th Amendment. The Supreme Court has taken up the issue of severe sanctions for juveniles three more times since then, and as a result there are restrictions in the use of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juveniles.

Changing public sentiment regarding the wisdom of sending young people to adult prisons has led policymakers in many states to revise misguided policies in this area. Many juveniles who would otherwise be languishing in adult prisons are now either in juvenile confinement facilities that are better designed for their needs or have been diverted from confinement altogether. In 2015, the number of juveniles held in adult prisons declined to less than 1,000, an 82 percent drop from the peak year in 1997.

These reforms have not resulted in any adverse public safety outcomes. Crime continues to be at historic lows.

Despite these advances, more than 9,000 people who were convicted as youth still do not stand to benefit from reforms either in the juvenile system or of the restrictions on punishments in the adult system. The Sentencing Project recently released a national study on the prevalence of life sentences nationwide, disaggregated by crime of conviction, race and ethnicity, gender and juvenile status. We obtained data from the states and federal Bureau of Prisons on the number of people serving three categories of life sentences: life with the possibility of parole (LWP), LWOP and virtual or de facto life sentences that amount to terms of 50 years or more. We learned that 1 in 7 prisoners is serving one of these sentences and that nearly 6 percent of the lifer population was under 18 at the time of the crime.

Aside from the roughly 2,300 individuals serving JLWOP there are approximately 7,000 juveniles who are serving parole-eligible life sentences around the country. For them, a statutory mandate or judicial decision has determined that spending the rest of their life in prison is reasonable if parole is not granted sooner. In New York, Georgia and Texas, more than 600 people sentenced for crimes in their youth have parolable life sentences. In California, which leads the nation in the category of life sentences, a notable 2,700 individuals are serving parole-eligible life for a crime committed under age 18.

In addition to the 7,000 juveniles serving life with parole, nationwide 2,000 individuals are serving de facto life sentences of 50 years or more for crimes committed when they were less than 18 years old. Louisiana reports 600 virtual lifers who were juveniles when their crime occurred and Texas reports nearly 450 such individuals.

The crimes committed by these juveniles were typically serious: 82 percent of lifers with the possibility of parole have been convicted of a homicide, and for half of these the crime was a first-degree murder. Among those serving de facto life for crimes committed as juveniles, 56 percent were convicted of a homicide and 94 percent were convicted of violent crime, including 22 percent for aggravated assault.

As with all life sentences, racial disproportionality is evident. African-American youth comprise more than half (53 percent) of the parolable and virtual life sentences, slightly less than their composition among the JLWOP population (63 percent). Overall, youth of color make up 81 percent of those serving life and virtual life sentences.

Some states stand out in the proportion of life and virtual life sentences being served by those who were young at the time of the crime. In Wisconsin, for instance, more than 11 percent of the life-sentenced population was a juvenile at the time of the crime. And while a first opportunity for parole comes after “only” 20 years in Wisconsin, we know from mounting research in parole politics and practices that rates of granting parole have fallen, particularly for those convicted of serious crimes and serving lengthy sentences. In Georgia, which in 2016 reported 600 people serving parole-eligible life sentences for crimes committed in their youth, the first opportunity for parole does not occur for 25 to 30 years. In Tennessee, the first parole hearing occurs only after a minimum of 51 years.

The requirement set forth in Graham v. Florida of a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” has shined a bright light on parole systems’ capacity and willingness to afford a second look, and when this should occur. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Virginia et al. v. Dennis LeBlanc (582 US ___[2017]) that Virginia’s “geriatric release” mechanism provided a sufficiently meaningful opportunity for release. Geriatric release allows review for those 60 years old and older; this means that LeBLanc and other people in his position will wait more than 40 years before being considered for release.

This and other lengthy terms of imprisonment stand to violate the spirit if not the letter of the recent court rulings. They also conflict with recent recommendations of the American Law Institute, a respected body of legal scholars and law practitioners that proposes a review after 10 years for any juveniles sentenced to terms longer than this.

Revised state laws for sentencing juveniles are being developed in the aftermath of the Supreme Court rulings. It is important to include in these considerations all youth with life and lengthy terms; their potential for reform and maturation is just as likely as for those sentenced to life without parole.

Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., is a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project and the author of numerous research reports on life sentences, most recently “Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences.”

Raise the Age Wave Stalled in Michigan, But Gathering Strength in Texas, North Carolina

Texas state Rep. Gene Wu is getting frustrated. Legislatures around the country are voting to treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles while his own state remains in a shrinking — and he says wrongheaded — club that charges them as adults, no matter the crime. Neighboring Louisiana acted last year, as did South Carolina, leaving just seven states nationwide that still prosecute all youth under 18 as adults.

Wu’s frustration grew earlier this month when New York made it six, joining the wave deciding that helping kids get their lives back on track is better than giving them a criminal record in the adult system. New York, which had automatically treated even 16-year-olds as adults, enacted a sweeping overhaul that included raising the age to 18, effective next year.

Rep. Gene Wu

“So many people here are saying, well, Texas is Texas, and it doesn’t matter what the rest of the country is doing. But it does, and we should do better on this issue,” said Wu, a Houston attorney and Democratic lawmaker. He sponsored a bill earlier this year that he hopes will increase the state’s age of criminal responsibility to 18.

“Last year Texas was one of nine states, and when we filed this bill there were seven, and now six,” he said. “North Carolina is probably going to raise the age this year, and maybe Georgia, so we just keep falling behind, and there is no reason for it.”

Today, Wu and his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives voted by 82-62 to raise the age, giving supporters hope, although it faces an uncertain Senate fate.

Similar legislative battles are playing out around the country. North Carolina’s House has passed a nearly identical measure, but it faces a potential state Senate roadblock, as does Texas. And last session, Michigan’s House enacted the measure, but it died without making it to a Senate vote.

In each state, opponents argued that such measures would cost too much to implement, overrun juvenile justice court systems and could, potentially, leave dangerous youth on the street.

Supporters of the lower age say such fears are nonsense and point to extensive studies that show the move lowers costs to taxpayers and drastically reduces recidivism rates. More importantly, they argue, such change provides true justice by giving kids picked up for marijuana or other minor crimes a chance to keep their futures from falling apart.

Wu said recidivism statistics showing that 30 percent of all youths charged as juveniles in Texas never commit another crime should make passage a logical choice. But, as a contentious debate during today’s vote made clear, the fight is far from over. Debate lasted more than an hour, with many voicing concerns about potential costs or increases in juvenile crime.

Those concerns are shared by state Sen. John Whitmire, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, according to Wu. Whitmire repeated those concerns in a recent interview with the Texas Tribune.

Sen. John Whitmire

Whitmire, who has the power to keep the measure from reaching a Senate floor vote, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In both Connecticut and Illinois, which raised the age in recent years, startup costs were far lower than forecast, and juvenile crime has dropped, according to a March study by the Justice Policy Institute and public records compiled by each state’s juvenile justice department. Connecticut’s switch has been so successful that it is considering raising the age of criminal responsibility to 21.

Rep. Duane Hall

North Carolina state Rep. Duane Hall hopes such success stories will help him in his third attempt to get his state to act. With New York’s vote, North Carolina is the only state in the nation that automatically charges 16-year-olds as adults.

“Another dubious list for us to be last on,” said Hall, a Democrat who introduced similar measures in 2013 and 2015. Both passed the House, but could not even get a vote in the state Senate.

He’s more optimistic this time, buoyed by the nationwide trend, studies showing the benefits and growing enthusiasm of his colleagues.

“I think we are all in agreement that it is the right thing to do, first of all, but also that in the long term, and even the midterm, really, this is going to save the taxpayers millions of dollars,” Hall said. “In the past, the lone holdover of opposition was the sheriff’s association, but now they are on board, and that has made a difference.

Judge Mark Martin

“And North Carolina’s chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mark Martin, has made it a priority issue,” Hall said. “We are in a much better position today, but it will still come down to the budget.”

Estimates say the switch will cost the state about $15 million in the first year and slightly more in the second before cost savings kick in. Studies by the Justice Policy Institute and others have shown that nearly all states that have voted to raise the age experienced startup costs far lower than anticipated, in large part because of lower crime and recidivism rates.

Under North Carolina rules, the House bill must “cross over” to the Senate for consideration by April 27 to have a chance of being passed. There are provisions for it to be incorporated in the state budget process, but that is a longshot, said Hall’s legislative assistant, Gregory Lademann.

Earlier this year, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18, only to see it die in the state Senate. The measure has been referred to a study committee for a full budget analysis, but that study is not scheduled to be finished until Jan. 1, 2018. Supporters hope to push a new bill long before then.

“We believe, and so do a lot of supporters of the legislation, that no matter what the study says, this is the right thing to do, and I’m not sure there is any reason to wait,” said Jason Smith, a policy associate at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice issues. “It’s important to have the financial information, but we’re lagging the rest of the country.

“I think we and other groups have done a very good job trying to educate people about the benefits, both financial and in other ways,” Smith said. “We’ve hosted experts from Connecticut and Illinois to share their success stories and show the positive results, and that’s made a big difference.”

In Texas, Wu, the state representative, is hoping that the weight of evidence nationwide will push the state Senate to finally act.

“This isn’t a tough sell, because people understand, both Republican and Democrat, that we’ve gone from tough on crime to smart on crime, and that has to be the approach,” Wu said. “We have statistics showing that 30 percent of all children put into the juvenile system will not reoffend, will never become adult criminals.

“That is tangible. People can see and feel that and understand the savings when you aren’t going to have to keep putting more people into adult prisons, or take care of them when they can’t get a job or a home because they did something stupid as a 17-year-old kid.”

Wu said the most important reason to raise the age is because it is the moral thing to do for youth and society.

“I represent juveniles in my day job, I had one kid, 16, a good kid, suddenly started fighting at school and getting worse grades,” said Wu, a full-time attorney when the legislature is not in session. “In the juvenile system, he got on our state insurance, and saw a therapist, who found a problem and prescribed mild drugs. He went back to normal almost immediately, got good grades again and stopped fighting.

“His family was poor and didn’t have access to medical so they couldn’t give him the help he needed,” Wu said. “If he was charged as an adult, his life could have been over. Charging in juvenile court, we look at the whole family situation, and the goal is how do we help this kid, as opposed to how do we hammer him, which is what happens in adult court.”


Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

Juvenile Hall Smaller in Texas

Despite the cliché, not everything is bigger in Texas. A year after the state merged juvenile and criminal justices under one big agency and commanded it to divert youthful offenders away from big state lockups to neighborhood programs, a pair of advocates are pleased. But both have tips for states considering the same setup.

The old system literally and figuratively put a lot of kids in the desert, said Benet Magnuson, a juvenile justice policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an Austin-based prison reform group.

“State facilities were less rehabilitative because the kids were isolated, it was hard to retain quality staff and they were ultimately unsafe for a lot of kids,” he explained.

Texas has transitioned over the last few years from sending juveniles to state lockups to trying to keep them in their home communities or counties for treatment.  In 2009, the legislature created a grant system that most of Texas’ 165 county probation departments are using. In 2011, the state created the new Texas Juvenile Justice Department and told it to emphasize home-based and community-based programs.

They have in mind things like Tom Green County’s family restoration programs. The central Texas county found that a significant minority of the youth referred to police lacked robust support at home: absent parents, incarcerated family, a history with child protective services.

So with a state grant, Tom Green County is now sending counselors and mentors into children’s homes, to help them with emotional, substance abuse or other struggles. For the family, parenting coaches are available.

Of 400 youth sent to county law enforcement in 2011, some served time in the county’s secure facility, but only one was forwarded to state custody, according to a new study by TCJC.  Statewide, TCJC credits the county-based programs with diverting some 3,000 youth away from Texas custody in fiscal year 2012 at a cost of $19.8 million.

Texas juvenile lockups cost about $360 per child per day, according to state figures.  But since the changes, the juvenile prison population has dropped from nearly 5,000 to just over 2,000. And in 2011, the state closed three secure facilities and merged others. State law caps county program costs at $140 per youth per day.

“It’s saving money at the front end and shifting the savings to the counties to more effectively treat kids at home,” explained Jeanette Moll,  juvenile justice policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation a free-enterprise think tank.

Checks on the counties make sure kids get effective treatment, she said. For the system to work, counties must use programs proved by evidence, there must be enough funding for the counties and there must be a way for the state to claw back money that’s headed toward faulty programs.

With 165 local probation departments, that’s 165 different systems, and 165 different ways a child could be treated, depending on where he or she is referred to the police.

The variation is a virtue, Moll argues. Border counties can focus on their specific problems of human trafficking and drug abuse, for example. Rural counties can skip gang programs that urban counties prefer.

But funding is strained, according to the TCJC study. In their survey of local probation chiefs, three-quarters said they lacked funds to follow best practices.

Magnuson said any state considering a shift to the county model needs to have mechanisms in place around oversight, guidance, technical support and monitoring. That’s “to make sure there is some consistency in care from county to county. And to make sure the counties are functioning at the level the high-level functioning counties are at,” he explained.

Indeed, next year, TCJC will try to convince lawmakers to increase the budget and powers of the juvenile Justice Independent Ombudsman, and require all counties to open their facilities for official inspection.

What the study found on the ground in the counties was generally good, said Magnuson, but the checkups must continue. “I think it’s a question to keep asking, to keep an eye on. The worst thing that could happen is that we move kids to the county and then forget about them,” he said.

Photo from Philanthropedia

This Budget Season, Texas Must Turn to Counties for Juvenile Justice Effectiveness

Hot, muggy August is actually a breath of fresh air. It’s a fresh start for Texas kids heading back to school, and the beginning of the budget process for Texas agencies as they work to prepare their budget requests for the new biennium.

In particular, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has a unique opportunity for a fresh start through a renewed emphasis on county and community-based placements for juvenile offenders to put more troubled Texas youths on the right track—and this can be done even while cutting the overall size of the budget.

Multiple news reports and an internal audit this summer have detailed rampant safety issues within state lockups for juvenile delinquents. While juvenile lockups certainly cannot and should not be pleasant places to stay, they must provide a basic level of security for minors.

To the contrary, youth-on-youth and youth-on-staff assaults have been widely reported and are causing concern among Texas lawmakers. And this isn’t the first time that state facilities have engendered concern in policymakers, harkening to the dark days of the 2006 sexual abuse scandal.

Their concern is warranted due to the safety issues as well as the substantial taxpayer investment in these facilities, totaling over $130,000 per year, per juvenile offender. With that kind of a price tag, lawmakers and Texas citizens are right to expect a greater degree of proficiency in handling juvenile offenders than reports suggest. This price tag shows that while staffing and security problems in state youth lockups must be addressed, spending more money alone will not cure these ills in Texas facilities.

To achieve that proficiency, the Department should continue and reemphasize its multiyear trend of placing more juveniles at the county level, and reallocating some of the funding from the state facilities to programs and placements at the county level, and shaving the balance of the savings off the budget entirely.

Texas counties began handling increased numbers of juvenile offenders in 2007 when lawmakers placed all misdemeanants in county care, and then initiated the Commitment Reduction Program. This grant program provided funds to counties who reduced their commitments to the state and placed more juvenile offenders within their own facilities and community-based programs.

By law, these placements must cost no more than $140 per day, less than half the price tag of state facilities, and counties were required to prove the programs were effective through ongoing performance measure tracking.

In part, these community-based and county-based solutions are effective as youths are closer to their families, churches, and other sources of support that are vital to successful reentry when they leave the juvenile justice system. Results from 2010, the first full fiscal year of use, show that less than two percent of youths required state-level placement following their initial county placement, and that reductions in state commitments tripled what was otherwise possible.

Counties were able to accomplish these outcomes for juveniles even while using what a recent Texas Criminal Justice Coalition survey called “underfunded” budgets. In fact, counties run incredibly efficient juvenile operations, indicating that lawmakers can divert further funding to the counties and entrust that taxpayer funds are likely to be spent more effectively.

While there are other important priorities for the Department that can further reduce the budget – namely, reducing the length of stay for low-level youths who remain in state lockups and prioritizing comprehensive, effective reentry programs that have proven to reduce recidivism – the new budget must reemphasize the use of county placements and further diversion of funding to the counties, recognizing that in most cases public safety and offender rehabilitation can best be accomplished at the local level.

Agency staff, Texas lawmakers, and Texas citizens are weary of the problems continually plaguing the juvenile facilities. This budget process offers a way out of the problems by going back to the basics, starting with the family and community, while continuing to reduce juvenile crime and taxpayer costs.

Jeanette Moll is a juvenile justice policy analyst for the Center for Effective Justice with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.

UPDATE: Contempt Charges Dropped Against Texas Honor Student Diane Tran

Honor student Diane Tran, 17, was arrested and sentenced to 24 hours in jail and $100 dollar fine. Photo: CNN
Honor student Diane Tran, 17, was arrested and sentenced to 24 hours in jail and $100 dollar fine by a Texs judge. Photo: CNN

UPDATE, MAY 31: Following an intense public backlash, Texas Judge Lanny Moriarty dismissed contempt charges Wednesday against Diane Tran - a 17-year-old high school student punished last week for truancy.

Tran, an 11th grade student at the Houston-area Willis High School, spent 24 hours in a Montgomery County jail last week and was ordered to pay a $100 fine for excessive truancy, Houston’s KHOU-11 reports. Under Texas law, students are allowed to miss no more than 10 class days during a six-month window; reportedly, Tran had missed 18 days for that school year.

Following her parents’ separation, Tran has been financially supporting her siblings, working full time at a dry cleaning operation and performing part-time work as a wedding planner. Considered a legal adult under state law, Tran was warned about her absences - considered a misdemeanor offense within the state - by a judge in April.

Shortly after the news broke, Tran’s case became an Internet phenomenon, with numerous sites and organizations starting fundraisers and circulating petitions in support of the 17-year-old, according to the Huffington Post. One petition, on the site Change.org, has amassed more than 250,000 signatures. The site HelpDianeTran.com, a project started by the Louisiana Children’s Education Alliance, raised more than $100,000 in little under a week for a trust account in Tran’s name.

By signing the order, Judge Moriarity drops all contempt charges against Tran, who now can have her record expunged following the completion of proper paperwork.

May 26: A 17-year-old honor student was sentenced to 24-hours in jail and a $100 fine by a Montgomery County, Texas judge for missing too many classes, CBS Atlanta reports.

Judge Lanny Moriarty told CBS Atlanta he wanted to make an example of Diane Tran, saying "If you let one run loose, what are you gonna' do with the rest of 'em?"

Tran works two jobs in addition to taking advanced-level classes in an effort support herself and her younger sister after her parents split and left the teens to, basically, fend for themselves, she told CBS.

The full report and video interview are available on CBSAtlanta.com.