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.

Weekly Roundup

Schools Rethink Lunch Policies That Humiliate Kids

Recently, the United States Agriculture Department has confronted the problem of food shaming in schools where students lack the funds to pay for their lunches. The Agriculture Department has not removed the most jarring examples like hand stamping and swapping out hot food for cold foods, but it has pushed for methods to improve communication with parents in handling food debt. Similarly, California, Texas, and New Mexico have also adopted their own state school lunch improvements so that children can be appropriately fed while at school. Read more here.

When Education Is Hijacked By War

The New York’s Times recently covered the story of Diego Ibarra Sanchez a photographer and documentarist who is currently working on a documentary on the effects an active war zone has on education. Mr. Sanchez is most known for his photography, which strikingly depicts the difficulties that children face to seek education in war torn Pakistan. In this article, Mr. Sanchez shows his work and displays some of his world class photos. Read more here.

Children’s Toys Can Spy On Them Through Cameras and Microphones, Warns FBI

The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center divisions have issued a warning regarding internet connected toys with microphones and cameras. According to the FBI, the video and voice recording systems in these toys could be abused and the GPS functionality could be used to locate your children. To prevent potential concerns one should make sure that all internet connected toys are turned off when not in use. Moreover, the ICCC has provided a list on how to manage potential security concerns (see list here). Read more here.

The Effects Of Screens On Tweens

Growing up, my parents regularly told me to limit my time playing video games or it would rot my brain. I’m willing to admit that I never took their advice too seriously, but maybe their opinions were not as far-fetched as I originally thought. We live in an era where our children spend hours viewing television and movies, as well as playing video games which may appear harmless; however, research has shown that video games, movies, and television have a profound impact on the mental development and behavior of our children.

For the past decade, researchers have gathered a vast amount of information on the effects of playing video games on child behavior. For instance, studies have found that consistent video game playing may lead to an increase in hostility by over stimulating our children’s nervous system. In essence, video game playing triggers the fight or flight mechanisms in our youth, which may lead to irregular acting out. Moreover, long-after the nervous system of our youth have returned to normal, our children still appear to suffer from sleeping difficulties and inhibited concentration. Furthermore, after playing video games children also appear to experience hindered impulse and emotion control. Experts have also found that simply viewing media may have an impact on children, active participation may not be necessary.

Recently, the New York Times noted that modern movies have a profound impact on the likelihood of future tobacco consumption. For instance, In a recent study done at the University of California San Francisco, researchers found that children who were heavily exposed to smoking in films where two to three times more likely to smoke later in life. Researchers concluded that the connection between smoking in films and future smoking outcomes stems from the reverence our children place on actors. In essence our children attempt to mimic the behaviors of the actors they admire, this on its own is not bad; however, the current films regular depict smoking. For instance, one out of every four movies rated for children depict smoking, and the number of incidents of smoking in top grossing films has increased by seventy-two percent among all movies. Research has also shown that television like movies also affects our children.

Like movies television also appears to have an effect on the behavior of our children. For instance, research has found that violent television can increase the likelihood of violent behavior later in life. Moreover, research findings have noted that watching sexual content can increase sexual behaviors. Televisions ads are especially troublesome to younger children because of their attention grabbing ability and our youth’s difficulty differentiating between ads and programming and separating advertising and reality. In essence, children get engulfed by an ad and a difficulty realizing that the depictions in an ad may be an impossibility.

I hate to admit it, but maybe my parents were on to something. Granted, I don’t believe my brain has rotted from staring at a television or movie screen. However, research indicates that video games can increase hostility and cause sleeping difficulties, that movies may increase the likelihood of smoking, and that television can increase sexual behaviors in children. I don’t think I’ll give my parents too much credit, but I’ll probably spend less time in front of a screen.

Dunckley, Victoria L. “This is Your Child’s Brain on Video Games.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 25 Sept. 2016. Web. 19 July 2017. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201609/is-your-childs-brain-video-games>.

Klass, Perri. “Why Smoking in Films Harms Children.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 July 2017. Web. 19 July 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/well/family/why-smoking-in-films-harms-children.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FChildren and Youth&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection>.

Vitelli, Romeo. “Television, Commercials, and Your Child.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 22 July 2013. Web. 19 July 2017. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201307/television-commercials-and-your-child>.