Are Texas Juvenile Correctional Facilities Improving?

The Austin-American Statesman reported last week on a survey of Texas youth offenders that shows that more juveniles are feeling safer in state-run facilities. The report also shows that additional reforms must be implemented.

A survey of more than 100 youths at a Central Texas juvenile correctional facility demonstrates the need for more reforms in the state juvenile justice system and for policies that keep youths closer to their homes, advocates say.

The state’s juvenile system is in the throes of sweeping reforms. In 2007, lawmakers passed a series of laws that reformed how the Texas Youth Commission kept juvenile offenders safe after stunning revelations of sexual abuse by the adults charged with caring for them.

Though the vast majority of youths surveyed reported feeling safe in the juvenile justice system and hopeful about their futures, they identified attacks from their peers as among their biggest concerns, and they said more staff training was the No. 1 thing they would change about the system. They cited negative interactions with staff, including perceived mistreatment and unfair rule enforcement, and said guards seemed ill-prepared to deal with youth assaults and bullying, according to the survey released this week by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

The Texas Legislature passed a number of measures in 2007 after a sex abuse scandal rocked the Texas Youth Commission. Based on survey results, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition outlined a number of next steps to continue reforms. Some suggestions included more training for staff members that interact with youth, implementing additional reforms that reduce youth-on-youth violence, and establishing policies that keep juveniles closer to their homes and families.

The Statesman article also quoted Jim Hurley, a spokesman for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, who characterized the study as a “good report.”

Texas State Senator John Whitmire, Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, will be speaking at the 11th Annual Zealous Advocacy Conference at the University of Houston Law Center this Friday and Saturday. Senator Whitmire has played a key role in the restructuring of the juvenile criminal justice system in the aftermath of the TYC sex abuse scandal. He will be speaking Friday afternoon in a session about TYC Restructuring.

Jury Finds Houston-Area Teen Who Fatally Shot Her Abusive Father Not Guilty

A Harris County jury delivered a not guilty verdict Monday for a Houston-area student who shot and killed her abusive father. In April 2009, Mark Nelson walked into the bathroom and watched his twelve year-old daughter in the bathtub. Trial testimony showed that Nelson’s behavior was part of a pattern of physical and sexual abuse that started when this daughter was six. On this particular April evening, when Nelson walked into the occupied bathroom, his daughter had enough. She demanded he leave. Nelson left, but only after reportedly telling his daughter that she would regret her actions.

Scared of what might happen after standing up for herself, the girl waited in the cold bathtub until her father was asleep. She said she feared for her life. Once her father was asleep, she found the .38 caliber revolver Nelson kept under his bed and shot him once in the back of the head.

Now fifteen years old, the girl was acquitted of murder by the jury on a defense theory based on her father’s abusive past. Jurors deliberated for four days. At one point the jury was deadlocked 8 to 4 for acquittal, but eventually reached a verdict Monday. If she had been convicted, the girl could have received up to forty years in prison.

Defense attorney Windi Akins Pastorini won a great victory for abuse victims everywhere by successfully demonstrating that her client’s actions were taken in self-defense. Although a self-defense theory typically requires a more imminent threat of immediate harm, Pastorini was able to demonstrate that her client was so frightened because of years of her father’s physical and sexual abuse, that she had no other choice but to take action.

This case is one of the first in the country in which a “battered child syndrome” defense has been successful. “Harris County jurors did the right thing,” said Ellen Marrus, George Butler Research Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Children, Law & Policy at the University of Houston Law Center. She continued, “The jurors recognized that children are different. If a child is being abused and he or she makes an outcry, and nobody does anything about it, it doesn’t give a child many avenues to rectify the situation.”

Additional coverage of the story is available at the Houston Chronicle, ABC, FOX, and CBS.

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Policy Primer: The Future of Juvenile Parole and Re-entry

The Texas Public Policy Foundation held a panel discussion in Austin regarding how the State follows up juvenile commitments and what direction their policies might take in the future.  Once released from detention or parole, the odds of a juvenile reoffending afterwards are unacceptably high.  While the civil commitment of delinquent juveniles is ostensibly done with the goal of rehabilitation, the last twenty years has seen public policy push more towards pure punishment.  It was a pleasure, therefore, to listen to some of our state officials speak about their goal of pushing the system back towards a truly rehabilitative goal.

The panel consisted of four speakers:

  • The Honorable Jim McReynolds, Chairman of the House Corrections Committee
  • The Honorable Robert Eckels, Former Harris County Judge and member of the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section, Juvenile Justice Committee
  • Cherie Townsend, Executive Director, Texas Youth Commission
  • David Reilly, Chief Juvenile Probation Officer, Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department

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