A blog about the Texas juvenile and criminal justice systems
PUBLIC SAFETY AND INTERPERSONAL VIOLENCECommunities with high levels of crime and violence are also among the most likely to experience widespread economic and social instability. High rates of incarceration, the threat of domestic abuse, child abuse, and interpersonal violence, and prevalent street crime can lead to significant difficulties with maintaining healthy behaviors and accessing care.
Homicide takes more than 16,000 lives each year, and is the leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24. In 2011, six percent of high school-aged youths said they skipped at least one day of school in a 30-day period due to feeling too unsafe to attend.
Source: FBI / FactCheck.org
Violence can also easily spill over into the healthcare setting, putting clinicians and other staff members at risk. Healthcare organizations spend around $2.7 billion each year on proactive and reactive violence response efforts, the American Hospital Association said in a 2017 report.
The figure includes $280 million for preparedness and prevention, $852 million in uncompensated care for victims of violence, more than $1 billion on training to prevent violence in hospitals, and $429 million coping with care, indemnity, and other costs resulting from violence against hospital employees.
The American Society for Healthcare Risk Management provides a healthcare facility workplace violence assessment toolkit that can help organizations reduce their incidence of violence against staff.
Addressing violence in the community and between individuals requires a concerted, policy-based approach to eliminating opportunities for violence, reducing income inequality that leads to violent tensions, and ensuring that victims of abuse and violence have the resources, support, and skills they need to leave dangerous situations.
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.
All the news that's fit to print on youth and emerging adults in the justice system.