A blog about the Texas juvenile and criminal justice systems
In 2012, the Supreme Court took a step toward righting a terrible wrong by banning mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for children. Last year, the court said that ban should apply retroactively: It told prosecutors to conduct resentencing hearings for the approximately 2,500 people who were serving life sentences for crimes they committed as adolescents. Many of them had been in prison for decades.
But if you walked into many courthouses today, you wouldn’t know that the Supreme Court had called for resentencing these juvenile offenders, the majority of them black. That’s because prosecutors are choosing to pursue life-without-parole sentences for these cases again.
Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases. Last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get a chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.
But prison gates don’t just swing open. Instead, uncertainty and opposition stirred by the new mandate have resulted in an uneven patchwork of policies as courts and lawmakers wrestle with these complicated, painful cases. The odds of release or continued imprisonment vary from state to state, even county to county, in a pattern that can make justice seem arbitrary.
The Associated Press surveyed all 50 states to see how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are re-examining juvenile lifer cases. Some have resentenced and released dozens of those deemed to have rehabilitated themselves and served sufficient time. Others have delayed review of cases, skirted the ruling on seeming technicalities or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.
When McCary was 17, police arrested him after he broke into a neighbor’s store and stole a handful of items while out drinking one night with friends. The ill-conceived teenage adventure became a lifelong burden when authorities charged McCary with four felonies.
The state of Texas is one of six states that charge 17-year-olds as adults. McCary spent a year in state jail. He’s stayed out of trouble since then, but nearly 20 years later, he still has a record as a convicted felon.
For McCary, that’s meant decades of difficulty finding a job and taking care of his family. When oil prices are high, he finds work in the fields. When prices fall, he competes for other jobs with workers who don’t have a felony record. McCary had a lead on a job as a school janitor, but it fell through because of his teenage conviction.
When McCary’s wife tragically died in an automobile accident last fall, he discovered new hurdles: As a convicted felon, he’s not allowed to manage his wife’s estate. A friend and Christian mentor volunteered to be the executor, but the experience was another tough blow during a particularly hard time.
“The list of what I can do is shorter than what I can’t do,” says McCary. “I’ve never experienced the full liberty of America as an adult.”
Elizabeth was thrilled to accept the Travis County Women Lawyers' Association public interest award at the Four Seasons in Austin Texas today.
Elizabeth Henneke, a juvenile justice advocate and defense lawyer, told the Tribune that the best help for youths would be to keep lockups small and closer to home.
Smaller facilities would allow "kids to be in smaller environments where they are not just of a herd but in fact are able to be treated like the kids that they are," Henneke said. "And being closer to home allows them to get the positive influences in their communities, so that when they transition back into their communities, they already have positive support."
The Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition views the “Raise the Age” initiative as an urgent life-and-death matter, not just a long-range public policy goal. A 17-year-old prisoner committed suicide in the Fort Bend County jail Jan. 26.
“A 17-year-old in an adult facility is 36 times more likely to commit suicide than someone in a juvenile facility,” said Elizabeth Henneke, policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
Proposed “Raise the Age” legislation would leave in place a certification process that allows prosecutors to charge older minors accused of violent crimes with adult offenses and authorizes judges to transfer cases to the adult system on a case-by-case basis, she explained.
While incarceration in a juvenile facility costs more per day than incarceration in an adult facility because of the rehabilitative services and educational opportunities offered to young offenders, the reduction in repeat offenses offsets results in long-term savings, she noted.
“The state has to pay a little more on the front end, but it’s a cost-effective approach in the long run,” Henneke said.
“More importantly, it’s a moral imperative. Raising the age puts these 17-year-olds in a safer environment with greater opportunities. It’s giving them another chance to rise to their potential.”
Policy attorney Elizabeth Henneke said this time around she and other advocates will make the case that the change would save money and increase safety.
The debate shouldn't be all about money, though, said Henneke, who works with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Henneke pointed to the recent death of Fort Bend County Jail inmate Emmanuel Akueir, a 17-year-old authorities said hanged himself.
"If we had passed this last session, that 17-year-old would not have been in that facility. So we're talking lives here," Henneke said. "Every year we don't pass this bill, that's another one of those kids. If you want to talk about costs, ask his parents about costs."
During last year's legislative session, the Senate approved a proposal to weaken the program. That measure died in the House. However, another bill passed that reduced some of the surcharges. Senators' comments at Wednesday's hearing suggested a strong interest in either dramatically reforming the program or scrapping it entirely when the Legislature meets again next year.
Elizabeth Henneke, a policy attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, endorsed that approach and recommended using court costs and fees to replace any lost trauma care funding. She described one case she worked on in which a single DWI for a 67-year-old woman eventually escalated into $25,000 in fines and several prison stays.
Texas' Driver Responsibility Program imposes surcharges on drivers for traffic violations from speeding and accidents to driving while intoxicated or without a license. Created by the Legislature in 2003, the program was designed to address both driver responsibility and the state's $10 billion budget shortfall.The program is managed by the Texas Department of Public Safety and requires offenders to pay annual surcharges ranging from $100 to $2,000 in addition to costs associated with the initial infraction. It also generates millions each year for hospitals and trauma centers. Advocates say "these much-needed funds are critical for maintaining a trauma safety net in Texas" and that the program is "key to [a] strong trauma care system."
Critics say the program is an unfair tax on poor Texans, that it has created a debtor's prison and is a trap for Texas drivers. According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, as of 2012 less than 40 percent of the surcharges assessed since the program's inception had been collected and 1.3 million drivers had invalid licenses.
Introduced in the 84th Legislative Session, Senate Bill 93 intended to weaken the Driver Responsibility Program but did not pass. State Rep. James White (R) introduced House Bill 67 in November 2016, which aims to repeal the program entirely.
All the news that's fit to print on youth and emerging adults in the justice system.