Becoming a father for the first time can be difficult for anyone, but when you do so in your teens or early 20s and have been incarcerated, it can be overwhelming. The right supports — stable housing, reliable networks, ties to employment, knowing how to build skills in fatherhood and healthy relationships — are essential.
In Michigan, 17-year-olds are not allowed to buy lottery tickets, get a tattoo, rent a car or hotel room or drop out of school. They can’t vote, serve on a jury or sign a legal contract either, presumably because they don’t possess the requisite maturity to make adult-level decisions. This distinction, however, is tossed out the window if a 17-year-old breaks the law. Suddenly, they are adults, facing devastating repercussions that can come with an adult conviction.
While the man behind the landmark decision that ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles waits for a new sentence, other inmates given the same term are getting a shot at eventual freedom.
Texas state Rep. Gene Wu is getting frustrated. Legislatures around the country are voting to treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles while his own state remains in a shrinking — and he says wrongheaded — club that charges them as adults, no matter the crime. Neighboring Louisiana acted last year, as did South Carolina, leaving just seven states nationwide that still prosecute all youth under 18 as adults.
Despite the cliché, not everything is bigger in Texas. A year after the state merged juvenile and criminal justices under one big agency and commanded it to divert youthful offenders away from big state lockups to neighborhood programs, a pair of advocates are pleased. But both have tips for states considering the same setup. The old system literally and figuratively put a lot of kids in the desert, said Benet Magnuson, a juvenile justice policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an Austin-based prison reform group. “State facilities were less rehabilitative because the kids were isolated, it was hard to retain quality staff and they were ultimately unsafe for a lot of kids,” he explained.
Hot, muggy August is actually a breath of fresh air. It’s a fresh start for Texas kids heading back to school, and the beginning of the budget process for Texas agencies as they work to prepare their budget requests for the new biennium. In particular, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has a unique opportunity for a fresh start through a renewed emphasis on county and community-based placements for juvenile offenders to put more troubled Texas youths on the right track—and this can be done even while cutting the overall size of the budget. Multiple news reports and an internal audit this summer have detailed rampant safety issues within state lockups for juvenile delinquents. While juvenile lockups certainly cannot and should not be pleasant places to stay, they must provide a basic level of security for minors.
UPDATE, MAY 31: Following an intense public backlash, Texas Judge Lanny Moriarty dismissed contempt charges Wednesday against Diane Tran – a 17-year-old high school student punished last week for truancy. Tran, an 11th grade student at the Houston-area Willis High School, spent 24 hours in a Montgomery County jail last week and was ordered to pay a $100 fine for excessive truancy, Houston’s KHOU-11 reports. Under Texas law, students are allowed to miss no more than 10 class days during a six-month window; reportedly, Tran had missed 18 days for that school year. Following her parents’ separation, Tran has been financially supporting her siblings, working full time at a dry cleaning operation and performing part-time work as a wedding planner. Considered a legal adult under state law, Tran was warned about her absences – considered a misdemeanor offense within the state – by a judge in April.