President's Message: Número Siete: Happy New Year! - By John A. Convery
Well, it is official! The legislative session began on January 10, and there is already a flurry of activity in the Capitol as hundreds of bills have already been filed. As you know, TCDLA invests significant time, energy, and staff in legislative efforts. TCDLA pursues reform to criminal justice issues to ensure that our clients are protected from efforts to diminish their constitutional and statutory rights. We do that by proposing and advocating for changes to procedural and substantive issues, tracking and monitoring all of the bills that might impact our membership and our clients, and opposing any and all efforts to curtail our clients’ rights.
This is intense and detailed work. Often, as the session progresses and bills move in committees, we find ourselves mired in the specifics of the language proposed. Details like should the language be an “and” or an “or,” a “shall” or a “may”? We can even spend hours negotiating with prosecutors or lawmakers on the placement of a comma. We become so immersed in the picayune that we sometimes forget some of our core beliefs—the things that make us do this work and keep us committed and enthusiastic.
Lately, I have been thinking about some of those fundamental issues we care about deeply. We have already seen some bills filed this session that tear at those basic principles of fair play and threaten the values we hold dear—bills to criminalize using someone else’s idea of the “wrong” bathroom and those to increase the punishment on crimes solely on the basis of a person’s lawful residence. I was reminded of one of these fundamental principles when recently responding to an inquiry from a reporter. It made me want to refresh our collective memory about how we treat juveniles in Texas. Perhaps there is no aspect of promoting justice and the common good that is more significant than protecting those who make up the next generations—the children.
TCDLA strongly supports legislation that would keep teenage offenders in the juvenile justice system until the age of 18. Texas, as one of only 7 states that automatically sends 17-year-olds to adult court—and therefore to adult jails and prisons—is out of step with the majority of the rest of the country. We are increasingly in the minority as several states have increased the age to 18 recently.
We all know that many of young people facing criminal charges today represent a subset of our community that has been all too often marginalized and vulnerable. We see children coming from poverty, broken homes, or trauma. Children who have experienced or witnessed profound or persistent violence, had access to substandard education, or are experiencing undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues. In scores of these cases, the only difference between a chance at a productive life and a path of repeated criminal activity for these teenagers is the juvenile justice system and the services it provides.
It is widely known and accepted that those teenagers who stay in juvenile court are less likely to re-offend than those who are processed in the adult system. Due to services tailored to those young people—including mental health services, counseling and treatment related to substance abuse issues, access to services aimed at keeping teenagers in school, job skills, and training programs—the juvenile system is rightly focused on rehabilitation, as opposed to punishment. We also know via research and anecdote that the majority of offenses committed by this population are minor and nonviolent in nature. Data gathered by the Texas House of Representatives, released in October 2016, showed that the majority of the offenses committed by 17-year-olds in 2015 were low-level crimes. Nearly 44% of these offenses were for things like marijuana possession, theft, and liquor law violations.
In our view, there are only benefits to such a change in Texas. TCDLA believes that raising the age to 18 would dramatically increase the chances that this subset of teenagers will be rehabilitated and not recidivate. They would be in a system that is set up to address their treatment and educational needs while protecting them from older, more mature offenders who could model the type of behavior the juvenile system is dedicated to preventing.
While TCDLA will certainly continue to wordsmith every line in a proposed bill, each comma, semicolon, and period. We will focus on all the little details that could make a difference in how a statute is interpreted in courtrooms across the state. But while we do so, we—as a membership—can also reflect on some of the big issues, especially those policies that are just wrong. Like treating children as adults.It is time for the Texas Legislature to recognize this reality and move on from a “one size fits all” method for dispensing criminal consequences. Raising the age is long overdue.