The Liberator

Issue 4 staff stance: Juvenile injustice: Can Texas break out of the cycle of mistreatment of its youth

Eva Strelitz-Block, Commentary Editor

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The 2018 midterm elections ushered in a slow blue wave to Congress and statehouses across the nation and the receding tide took U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions with it. Sessions’ very last act, his last bit of business conducted prior to resigning Nov. 7, was to issue a memo that cements his legacy as a formidable obstructionist to criminal justice reform and makes it more difficult to hold law enforcement accountable for abuse and unconstitutional conduct. It is bad news for advocates of police accountability and prison reform. More egregiously, it is disastrous for activists fighting to end juvenile mass incarceration and especially the practice of jailing kids in adult prisons.

Liz Ryan, President and CEO of Youth First, an organization dedicated to ending youth incarceration, wrote in 2016 that “There is a bipartisan consensus behind the need for wholesale reform of the American criminal justice system—juvenile justice reform included.” That may be even more true today than it was two years ago. Indeed, reality TV star Kim Kardashian’s successful appeal to Trump in June to pardon Alice Johnson, a 63 year old serving a life sentence for a conviction on a nonviolent drug trafficking charge, confirms that prison reform has gone mainstream. Sessions’ action, accomplished despite his standing as one of the most beleaguered attorneys general to hold the position in modern memory, reveals just how stacked the deck is against justice system reform.

Reforming our criminal justice system, which includes tackling issues of police bias and abuse, the burgeoning prison population, inequities in sentencing, and the ongoing practice of sentencing and incarcerating youths as adults, has always been heavy lifting. There is “big money” to be made from jailing people for long periods of time. Prisons create jobs and drive economies. Prison populations draw federal funding to states. Not coincidentally, executives of corporations that run private prisons are some of the wealthiest corporate barons around. The prison industrial complex is entrenched. And despite a growing body of evidence highlighting both the the ways in which lengthy sentences for young offenders are ineffective and the horrifying pattern of abuse that emerges from facilities that incarcerate youthful offenders, the political and economic incentives continue to line up to not only favor the status quo — but to burnish it.

While the adult criminal justice system focuses on punishment, the juvenile system is civil not criminal. It’s purported missions is rehabilitation. Implicit in this bifurcation is the awareness that an adult prison is no place for adolescent growth and transformation – something which, by any measure of societal progress, should be encouraged and available to young people. According to an Annie E. Casey Foundation report, the US imprisons more children than any other country in the world. The Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit that provides representation to low-income prisoners, notes that today over 10,000 juveniles are housed in adult prisons and jails, most for nonviolent offenses. A Hogg Foundation report found that in Texas, 115 youths between the ages of 13-17 were certified as adults for transfer to the adult criminal justice system in 2015. Texas is one of only seven states that routinely funnels 16 and 17 year olds through the adult system. We should all be questioning the social justice implications of these numbers and asking if they portend the successful rehabilitation of youthful offenders.

Notwithstanding the growth in the youth prison population, it is clear that when it comes to youth incarceration, less is most certainly more. The Texas Juvenile Justice Division reports that the recidivism rate among teens is almost 43 percent. Not good. Worse, juveniles who are imprisoned in the adult system are over 30 times more likely to reoffend than youth housed in the juvenile justice system. In fact, they are more likely to reoffend than had their cases never been adjudicated at all. Incarcerating youth offenders in adult prisons is both ineffective and unethical.

The justice system is rife with insidious disparities. Maurice Chammah, writing for the Atlantic, reported in 2015 that juveniles in adult prisons are vulnerable to be abuse by both guards and other prisoners. And it should be no surprise that juveniles are much more vulnerable than their adult counterparts to sexual assault given that the inherent power imbalance between prisoners and prison staff is exacerbated when youth are housed in adult facilities.

Additionally, both juvenile and adult African-Americans are convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, and receive lengthier sentences, at higher rates than their White counterparts. And African-American juveniles are more prone to getting stuck in the criminal justice system. They are disproportionately referred to adult facilities, have less access to resources to rebuild their lives when they leave prison, and, are therefore, much more likely to end up back in jail.
Racism and corporate greed appear to be the root causes of the mass incarceration problem in the United States.

There have been some notable recent attempts at confronting the injustices of the justice system. However, the First Step Act, passed in May of this year by the House (but ignored by the Senate), while heralded by its sponsors as a bold foray into reform, is viewed by experts as largely toothless. It does little to address youth incarceration and, critically, fails to address sentencing practices, without which any intent to rehabilitate youth offenders goes off the rails.

Urgent action, a large scale public outcry, is necessary to end the practice a of youth incarceration in adult facilities. It’s true that President Trump has publicly offered support for prison reform over the objections of some in his administration. Referring to his then Attorney General Jeff sessions, Trump declared in an Oct. 11 Fox and Friends interview, “If he doesn’t [support reform], then he gets overruled by me. Because I make the decision, he doesn’t.” But, having summarily dismissed Sessions, prison reform is sure to fall off Trump’s radar as he he abandons that particular proxy battlefield. It will be painful irony indeed if Sessions, long the foe of all progressives everywhere, turns out to have been prison reform advocates’ secret weapon in the White House.

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Issue 4 staff stance: Juvenile injustice: Can Texas break out of the cycle of mistreatment of its youth