UT lecturer and juvenile justice reformer Michele Deitch, whose class was recently voted the most valuable in the LBJ School of Public Affairs, says Texas prisons are no place for kids. Now she and her students are changing laws and saving lives.
“I haven’t seen sunlight in two years,” the teenager said.
He was 16, sitting under fluorescent lights in a dingy dayroom at the Harris County jail. The teen sat at a table with UT lecturer Michele Deitch, her student Anna Lipton Galbraith, and three other teens, whose ages ranged from 14 to 16. All four young men had been accused of crimes and certified to stand trial as adults. They were awaiting trial.
It was a humid day last October. Deitch—an attorney and nationally renowned prison expert —and Lipton Galbraith, a graduate student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, had driven from Austin to visit the Houston jail, doing research for a report on jail conditions.
The 16-year-old told Deitch and Lipton Galbraith that he had been in jail for two years, since age 14. When he said he hadn’t seen natural light, he probably wasn’t exaggerating—the jail’s only windows, in its small gym, were blanketed in dark mesh, and there was no outdoor recreation area.
Staff at the jail told the researchers that they were struggling to accommodate the four teens. Texas law requires that juvenile inmates be physically separated from adults, so the Harris County jail isolated the teens in their own cell pod. Adult inmates were so overcrowded in the remaining space that jail officials were renting extra beds.
“The staff said, ‘We’re not equipped to handle these kids. They don’t belong here. We hope you tell the Legislature that,’” Lipton Galbraith recalls.
For two years now, Deitch and her students have been telling legislators—and anyone else who will listen—just that. The data they’ve collected paint a disturbing picture of the dangerous conditions faced by the 1,292 teenagers certified as adults from 2005 to 2011.
“It’s a small number, but for those kids, it’s a big deal,” says Deitch, a New Yorker-turned-Texan whose faint Staten Island accent comes out in moments of strong emotion. “They’re at incredibly high risk for suicide, sexual violence, mental health issues, and a whole host of other problems.”
Even more alarming, Deitch argues that teens sent to adult prisons are no more violent than their peers sentenced to state-run youth lockups— and they’re much less likely to be successfully rehabilitated.
The Harris County jail visit confirmed what Deitch says her research has shown again and again about the adult criminal justice system: “Kids don’t belong there. It’s not good for them, it’s not good for the prisons, and it’s not good for public safety.”
Is she right—and can she change Texas’ notoriously troubled system?
The ‘Worst of the Worst’?
Deitch found that 72 percent of certified youth do not have a prior violent criminal history, and 89 percent have never been in the state’s juvenile system.
Texas established its first juvenile court in 1907 to “[mend] the ways of erring children,” as Bexar County judge Phil Shook described in 1908. Politicians of the era believed that young lawbreakers should be reformed with a balance of severity and compassion, “as a wise and merciful father handles his own child,” wrote a judge in a 1909 Harvard Law Review article.
From these beginnings, U.S. juvenile courts long emphasized rehabilitation hand-in-hand with punishment. But attitudes changed drastically in the 1980s and ’90s, when a fear of young “super-predators” swept the nation. Highly publicized tragedies like the 1989 Central Park jogger rape and the 1999 Columbine High School shooting spurred politicians to stress punishment over therapy. For the first time, states began transferring juveniles to the adult system.
In Texas courts today, the age of legal adulthood is 17. Teens as young as 14 can be “certified,” or ordered to stand trial as adults. The intent is to put away only youth guilty of the most violent crimes—delinquents so dangerous that the juvenile system can’t reform them.
But Deitch says statistics tell a different story. “No one set out to put non-violent youth in adult prisons,” she says, “but the law allows it, so that’s what happens.”
In a 2011 study, Deitch found no significant differences between those Texas teens certified as adults and those given blended sentences, which begin in the juvenile system and allow for transfer to the adult system if the teen can’t be successfully rehabilitated.
Deitch found that 72 percent of certified youth do not have a prior violent criminal history, and 89 percent have never been in the state’s juvenile system. That defies the perception that certified youth have exhausted all other options.
Aggravated robbery is the most common crime among both certified and non-certified youth, Deitch found. Only 17 percent of those certified are accused of murder—contrary to the popular belief that most teens in the adult system are killers.
The only big difference, Deitch says, is by county. Judges in Houston’s Harris County certified 301 teens from 2006-09—more than twice as many as any other county in Texas. Why? “They’re a huge county, and they’re struggling,” Deitch says, though she notes that Houston’s numbers have gone down recently.
“These youth simply aren’t the worst of the worst,” Deitch says. “We should limit transfer to the most serious and violent crimes.”
But not everyone agrees, including Mario Davila, a training coordinator and longtime probation officer with the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department. Davila says he’s worked with hundreds of struggling teens—and the certified ones tend to be the most troubled, in his day-to-day experience. “There’s always a reason why a kid was certified,” Davila says. “I think her research is on the right track, but just because they look the same on paper doesn’t mean they are the same in reality. Paper isn’t everything.”
Life on the Inside
The Texas juvenile-justice system has its own troubles, including recent reports of increased youth-on-youth violence. But Deitch says it’s still a far better place for young offenders than the adult system. Marc Levin, BA ’98, JD ’02, who directs the Center for Effective Justice at the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation, agrees.
“Across the board, there’s a widespread belief that youth are more likely to be reformed,” Levin says. “Juvenile facilities emphasize education, therapy, and rehabilitation much, much more than adult prisons do. Most of the youth in adult prisons are not in school.”
Statistics support that claim. In 2008, Deitch and her student Terry Schuster, JD ’09, found that only 38 percent of certified youth in the Clemens Unit, an adult prison, were attending classes—versus 96 percent of youth taking classes in the juvenile system. Researchers are optimistic that those numbers are improving, but there’s still no question that rehabilitation is less of a priority in the adult system.
What about public safety? National data show that putting teens in adult lockups actually makes them more likely to break the law again: a 2007 Centers for Disease Control study found that youth transferred to the adult system were twice as likely to re-offend as their peers in youth lockups.
Jason Wang, 22, says he’s a juvenile-justice success story. At 15, Wang committed aggravated robbery and was sentenced to the juvenile system’s therapy program for the worst young offenders. The program has a nationally recognized 95 percent success rate.
“I turned my life around,” Wang says. He did so well that the Texas Juvenile Justice Department gave him a full-ride college scholarship. Wang graduated in three years from UT-Dallas, where he’s now working on an MBA.
Wang may be an outlier—but so was Rodney Hulin.
In 1996, 16-year-old Hulin set fire to a dumpster. He was certified as an adult and convicted of arson. In the Clemens Unit, the adult prison near Brazoria where male certified youth are housed, Hulin was repeatedly raped by other young cellmates. In a letter requesting protective custody, he wrote, “I’m afraid to sleep, to shower, and just about everything else. I’m afraid when I’m doing these things that I may die at any minute.” After his request was denied, Hulin hanged himself.
Hulin became a national symbol of why kids don’t belong in adult prison (though his attackers were other certified teens). Sadly, suicides like his still happen. Youth in adult prisons are 36 times more likely to kill themselves than those in the juvenile system, according to a 2007 study from the advocacy group Campaign for Youth Justice.
The sobering statistics about what happens to youth in adult prisons make it easy to understand why some might come out worse than they went in. In 2003, Congressional research cited in the Prison Rape Elimination Act found that youth are five times more likely to be raped in adult prisons—often within 48 hours of arrival.
Making an Impact
Deitch recently spoke to an audience of sheriffs. “I looked out and saw 10-gallon cowboy hats, boots, and guns—lots of guns,” she laughs. “You think, ‘Boy, I better not mess this one up.’”
She didn’t. Deitch has worked in and around prisons everywhere from England to Boston to Arizona. Justice reform first caught her attention as a student at Harvard Law School, where she represented inmates in a prison assistance project. “This stuff got into my blood and never left,” she says.
While still working on her law degree, Deitch also found time for a master’s in psychology, specifically criminology, from Oxford. “I approach prisons from a psychological perspective,” she says. “They are communities, and we need to understand how people relate to each other within them.”
“Michele is a top person nationally,” says Ana Yáñez-Correa, PhD ’11, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an Austin advocacy group. “She has the practical experience, the policy experience, the academic experience. Her data has filled a big gap in Texas.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Deitch has supporters on both sides of the aisle. “Many legislators on the House Corrections Committee are Tea Party folks, working closely with Democrats,” says Yáñez-Correa. “This reform is about saving lives and saving money. Those are nonpartisan issues.”
Levin, at the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation, has collaborated with Deitch and says juvenile justice reform is a rare area of bipartisan consensus. “Everybody wants to reduce crime and not waste taxpayer money,” Levin says. “Ultimately policymakers want to see the research, and Michele brings that to the discussion.”
And for years, Levin notes, the Texas Republican Party platform has stated, “We condemn incarcerating juveniles and adults in the same facility.”
Deitch’s impact has been significant. Her research was directly responsible for the passage of two new juvenile justice laws in Texas. One, Senate Bill 1209, gives judges the option to put certified youth in juvenile jails rather than adult ones while they await trial. Though it’s a minor tweak to the law, it’s already caused major change. The bill recently led Harris County to pass a policy keeping youth out of adult jails.
Then there’s her teaching. Students line up to get in Deitch’s class on juvenile-justice policy, recently voted the most valuable in the LBJ School. Last fall, students loved the class so much that they talked Deitch into adding an advanced version in the spring. “I always left Michele’s class on a high,” recalls former student Schuster, now working on juvenile-justice reform in Ohio. “She continues to inspire and energize me.”
Deitch has sent her students out to service-learning placements with judges, state agencies, and other stakeholders. “When they believe in the importance of the work, students live up to the demands you place on them,” she says.
Those demands have led to real change: Hannah Miller, JD ’09, created a model that gave Texas counties $25 million to treat juvenile offenders in their own communities. And Schuster drafted House Bill 4451, which increased the state’s options for treating mentally ill juveniles. Both collaborated with Travis County District Judge Jeanne Meurer, JD ’77. “Michele has this unstoppable energy,” Meurer says, “and she really believes in her students.”
Deitch says Texas’ reputation for criminal justice that doesn’t get to the root causes of crime is only half of the story. “Texas is ground zero,” she says. “We’ve become a national model on some issues, and you don’t often hear that side of things.”
Five months after visiting the Harris County jail, Deitch took three students on another research trip to the Clemens Unit, where Rodney Hulin committed suicide in 1996. Founded in 1893, Clemens is one of the state’s oldest lockups. The prison lacks air conditioning, strips of paint hang from the walls, and Deitch describes the architecture as “cage upon cage upon cage.”
There, they spoke with two 15-year-old inmates about the realities of prison life; one teen said he feared contracting HIV through sexual assault. Deitch was turning to leave when Lipton Galbraith recognized one of the prisoners. “That’s the guy we met in Harris County,” she told Deitch. The 16-year-old who’d said he hadn’t seen sunlight in two years was sitting alone in a corner cell. Deitch and Lipton Galbraith chatted with him through the bars.
“It must be good to see the sun,” Deitch said, since his cell looked down on a huge window. Deitch says she’ll never forget what happened next. “He was so happy that we remembered him, that we treated him with respect. A huge smile spread across his face.”
Read UT alum Jorge Antonio Renaud’s firsthand account of his time in the Texas prison system, “In Prisons, Youth Are Prey.”
For more on Michelle Deitch and Jorge Antonio Renaud’s work in juvenile justice, watch this video from the Alcalde show on Longhorn Network:
Photography by Steve Liss.
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