Texas juvenile justice system on the right track, adult needs reform
Whether it is deserved or not, Texas has a reputation of being unapologetically draconian when it comes to its criminal justice system. The state’s steadfast allegiance to the death penalty, inordinate number of inmates placed in solitary confinement and unresolved issues with overly-crowded prisons all seem to stem from policies that favor punishment above rehabilitation and retribution over compensation. However, such ignominious distinctions are no longer entirely deserved. It is more accurately stated that a dichotomy now exists between the juvenile and adult justice systems. While the youth oriented component now serves as a lesson in practicality and effectiveness, the adult system is an embarrassment to a state that lags painfully behind the rest of the nation. Such a discrepancy should not be tolerated when a clear pathway to reform exists and has been proven successful.
As recently as 2007 Texas had what was possibly the most poorly-run juvenile detention facilities in the country. During this time, incarcerating one juvenile cost the state an unbelievable $93,864 per year, and fraud and irresponsible spending were burning through millions of the tax-payers’ dollars. When reports emerged of widespread instances of physical and sexual abuse of teen inmates the scandals became too reprehensible to ignore. The reforms were swift and dramatic.
Governor Perry, so often portrayed as a “tough on crime” extremist, allowed good policy decisions to beat out partisan ideology and quickly dismantled the agency that ran the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Harsh sentencing guidelines were re-evaluated in order to keep many of the non-violent and first-time offenders out of state facilities. The state senate went as far as prohibiting the jailing of youth for misdemeanors. As a result, the state has saved more than $200 million, and the number of incarcerated juveniles in Texas has decreased by more than 50 percent. Both inside and outside jail counseling programs were expanded, and community organizations were recruited to assist with breaking the cycle of crime and imprisonment among juvenile offenders. In the last four years, both juvenile crime rates and rates of recidivism have fallen to some of the lowest levels seen in decades.
Deservedly, Gov. Perry is now credited for successfully overhauling a once broken system, and implementing policies that preserve public safety while demonstrating an appropriate degree of leniency and compassion towards wayward youth. In a remarkably short time, the state’s juvenile justice system was so completely restructured that it is being cited as an exemplary model of efficient and effective management.
In contrast, Texas lawmakers seem to be deliberately undermining the adult justice system, and the repercussions are daunting.
The state has more inmates placed in solitary confinement than anywhere else in the nation. Tantamount to torture, this isolation precludes convicts from receiving any form of rehabilitation, and is documented to lead to higher levels of recidivism. Even for inmates in the general prison population, programs that provide drug counseling, mental health treatments and various educational services are either being reduced or eliminated. Such short-sightedness is expected to dramatically increase the number of repeat offenders and add to behavioral problems within prisons. Punitive measures are dominating over reformative ones, and the adult prison system is reverting to arcane policies more often associated with the dungeons of the past.
That such a divergence can exist between the two parts of the same justice system reflects the absurdity of state lawmakers’ decisions that are based primarily on ideology and adherence to a decrepit establishment. Conservatives may give a pass to juveniles, but they refuse the same proven reforms for adult offenders out of fear of being seen as catering to criminals. The adult prison system is resistant to any changes that threaten its funding, which is largely based on its number of inmates.
It took a near total failure for the juvenile justice system to initiate the reforms that are now receiving so much praise. It would save the state time, money and respectability to implement the same types of changes to the adult justice system before another such fiasco occurs.
Marc Anderson is a 3rd-year cell biology Ph.D. student and may be reached at [email protected]