Juvenile Defense is a Matter of Life & Death

This summer, I have had the extraordinary privilege of interning at the Texas Innocence Network. The Texas Innocence Network is committed to representing current inmates who have viable claims of actual innocence (TIN’s “non-capital” division), as well as inmates on death row who have already been sentenced to death (TIN’s “capital” division). Working in the capital division, I’ve conducted research on behalf of our clients, drafted portions of § 1983 claims and petitions of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, and—just about ten days ago—met with a few of our clients at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, where Texas imprisons its inmates who have been found guilty of capital punishment and have been sentenced to death.

My trip to death row was a lot of things: surreal, stressful, eye-opening, humbling—the list goes on. More than anything, though, it was tragic. Each prisoner on death row carries a tragic story, a story that often begins and ends with the unnecessary taking of a life. In my experience working at Texas Innocence Network this summer, I have learned that there exists something of a common denominator among our clients, and presumably among the rest of the approximately 250 inmates on death row. In seemingly every case, a client had far more difficult an upbringing that I could ever imagine. In most cases, a client’s presence on death row is not that client’s first taste of our criminal justice system. Usually, a client’s first foray into the frightening world of arraignment hearings and trial dates and guilty verdicts will have come far sooner, when that client was just a kid. And, in a country and in a state that appears none too concerned with the reintegration of its inmates back into free society, often that client finds himself back in the system once, twice, perhaps even more times, until he finds himself awaiting the gurney.

I don’t want to make excuses for people who commit heinous crimes. I think everyone believes that people who commit violent crimes ought to be punished. But I would echo Professor David Dow in his plea for all of us as citizens of Texas and as citizens of the United States to do more. The intersection of cyclical poverty and the criminal justice system and its resulting effects of disproportionate sentencing and recidivism is an issue far too complex for a rising 2L to solve on a blog post. However, it is undoubtedly the case that far too many of our clients were initially convicted of a crime as juveniles (with oftentimes overworked or downright inadequate legal representation), beginning a long and frustrating process that resulted in tragedy for themselves, for victims and victims’ families, and for all of us, who are absolutely complicit and therefore culpable as voting citizens in a state where the death penalty is legal. In order to save lives, it is imperative that we invest in and prioritize juvenile defense. Whatever we’re doing now isn’t enough.

To protect children, Texas, U.S. must outlaw conversion therapy

According to a recent article from the New York Times, Nevada and Connecticut have become the two newest states to declare “conversion therapy” — “therapy” meant to reassign one’s sexual orientation or sexual identity to its “proper,” heterosexual, heteronormative foundation — illegal to anyone under 18 years of age. Texas, not to mention the nation as a whole, should follow in the footsteps of states like Nevada and Connecticut, and put an end to an institution that not only promotes homophobia, but also reinforces and perpetuates feelings of inferiority and inadequacy in LGTBQ youths, a demographic of American society already more prone to bullying, assault, rape, and suicide than average (see this study from the CDC and this one from the Trevor Project).

At its philosophical core, conversion therapy believes that non-heterosexual children must be fundamentally altered in order to conform to “traditional” American society. Taking into account the fact that LGBTQ youths are already more at risk than their peers (see above), the combination of an adult “professional” making it his or her daily work to “restore” and LGBTQ child to heterosexuality can have exponentially damaging effects on a child’s self-worth. Rather than promoting and perpetuating feelings of inferiority and otherness, it is undoubtedly in the best interest of our state’s and our nation’s children to create a culture of acceptance.

To quote Chief Justice Warren’s Brown v. Board of Education opinion, “To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” The same basic principle applies here: the continued “otherness” of LGBTQ youths will continue to have corrosive effects on a child’s self-worth and “status in the community.” Therefore, in order to protect at-risk American children, it is incumbent upon state and national legislators to outlaw conversion therapy.

Weekly Roundup

Senate Bill 179 (“David’s Law”) heads to legislative conference committee in Texas Congress

Texas Senator Jose Menendez crafted David’s Law to combat cyberbullying among Texas minors after 16-year-old David Molak tragically took his own life. David’s Law “would make it a Class A misdemeanor to electronically harass or bully someone under age 18 with the intent of causing them to commit suicide or harm themselves” and “would allow for temporary injunctions against social media accounts used to harass or bully children.” Read more.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos won’t say whether she’d withhold federal funds from private schools that discriminate

Secretary DeVos “refused to say Wednesday whether she would block private schools that discriminate against LGBT students from receiving federal dollars, explaining that she believes states should have the flexibility to design voucher programs and that parents should be able to choose schools that best fit their children’s needs.” DeVos “returned frequently to the theme of what she called a need for more local control” and lamented, “We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.” Read more.

Racial disparities worsen even as Utah school discipline decreases, report says

Despite a downward trend of roughly 30% fewer suspensions between 2012 and 2014, “racial and ethnic disparities in how those actions were meted out to Utah’s public school students worsened.” Hispanic students, for example, “were more than twice as likely than their white peers to be expelled in 2014, according to the report, despite comparable expulsion rates for the two demographic groups in 2012.” Read more.