Monthly Archives: June 2011

The “Teen Brain” and Criminal Behavior

The May 10, 2004 issue of Time magazine featured a cover story entitled, “Secrets of the Teen Brain”.  The article reported that new research was leading experts to believe that teens have less control over their actions and are less capable of acting rationally than had previously been believed.  Anyone who pays attention to the world around them didn’t need scientists to reveal this fact. 

Science was starting to provide solid evidence to prove what we already pretty much knew from our own experience and observations.  This area of research is one that is of great interest to me as an attorney who represents inmates in Texas who are being considered for parole.  I plan to post a blog article in the weeks to come that will provide the latest research and data on the differences between the teen brain and the adult brain.  Here’s a summary of what I know so far, without the charts, graphs, statistics,etc.

Scientists feel that the human brain is not fully developed until age 25, rather than the prior belief that the brain was finished developing at age 12 or 13.

The area of the brain that is the last to develop is the prefrontal cortex.  This area is where a brain plans, sets priorities, suppresses impulses, and weighs the consequences of one’s actions.  This area of the brain is not completely developed until age 23-25.  

When the Time article was printed, 2004, I was interested in the subject of teen driving behaviors because of my work in connection with a case involving a teen driver who had run a red light going almost 40 miles over the posted speed limit.  The accident nearly killed my client. 

The teen tearfully told me in a deposition that he didn’t know why he had been such a reckless driver, he just liked the way it felt when he drove cars fast, really fast.  He seemed like a pretty good kid from a pretty good home, and he had genuine remorse and guilt for what had happened.  Of course, he is now a convicted felon for life.

During the past four years, I have had plenty of opportunities to see firsthand evidence that younger people really do commit more crime, especially crimes arising from impulsive behavior, and these people have much more disciplinary problems in prisons than older inmates.  Ask any prison warden what group of inmates causes the most trouble.  The answer is always the same, the younger ones.

It is ironic that more young people are being prosecuted as adults, and sentence lengths are often longer for teens (especially the poor ones) and very young adults, despite mounting evidence that the teen brain is not the same as the adult brain.

Hormones also play a strong role in teen behavior.  Sex hormones are most active in the limbic center, which controls emotions.  Teens have a tendency to engage in activities that cause their passions to run wild.  This tendency contributes to the adolescent tendency to thrill-seek.  Testosterone is the sex hormone in males.  Approximately 90% of the prisoners in TDCJ are male.  I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Hmmm, are you thinking that the combination of the undeveloped or underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and the presence of high levels of hormones might just combine to cause bad things to happen?  This is not being offered as an excuse for criminal behavior, but it might just explain an awful lot, if anyone cares to pay attention.

This topic needs to be better understood by judges, juries, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and parole officials.  I haven’t seen much evidence that these folks understand the science, and I have to wonder how much science has to be in front of them before it will cause a change in how the “system” treats criminal behavior committed by younger people. 

Will Parole Officials Dupe Parolees On Continued Use of Special Condition “X”?

On May 27, 2011, I posted a blog reporting that The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had issued a very important decision in the world of Texas parole, involving the imposition of the controversial  “Special Condition “X” in the lives of parolees.

The CCA held, unanimously, that the Parole Board is not permitted to impose sex offender restrictions on parolees who were never convicted of any sex crimes, without first having an evidentiary hearing and allowing the parolee to receive some level of due process protection.  The Federal Court had already told them the same thing, but that Order was conveniently ignored. 

There are literally thousands of people who are presently ordered to comply with Special Condition “X” who were never convicted of a sex crime.

It is my understanding that the Parole Board intends to have these thousands of people come in to meet with their Parole Officer who will then ask them to sign waivers so that the Parole Board can continue to impose Special Condition “X” . 

This move allows the Board of Pardons and Paroles to avoid the need (and the cost) to have thousands of evidentiary hearings in order to determine whether it’s even appropriate to impose the condition in each case where the parolee was never convicted of a sex crime.

I hope, though I seriously doubt, that the Board will choose to simply remove Special Condition “X” requirements in a significant percentage of the cases at issue.  Instead, I fear that most parolees will feel compelled to sign something they may not understand fully, especially because their parole officer is asking them to sign it.  Afterall, Rule #1 on parole is that you don’t piss off the parole officer or he can see to it that you are back in prison.

I also fear that parole officers will be expected (required?) to get the parolees to sign the documents, so that they can avoid having to worry about things like due process, fairness, etc.

This is going to be a mess, and I expect that there will be some litigation to follow.  I look forward to the possibility of participating in the fight to come.

Does The Victim Protest = Parole Denied?

As a threshold matter, I apologize for letting this blog post go pretty far north of 1000 words.  The blogging gods say blogs are best at 400-600 words.  I guess I’m way off the target blog length here.  Yet, there are those times when you share your thoughts on a particular issue and as they are written out in sentences and paragraphs, the words just seem to multiply.  This topic is one of those topics where it’s hard for me to remain loyal to the blogging gods.  I’ll pray for forgiveness later.

According to established TDCJ protocol, in Texas, a “victim” who wishes to protest the parole release of a TDCJ Offender is not only free to do so, but your tax dollars are also being spent to try to locate these victims and get them to lodge more protests. 

The expenditure of state funds in this manner undoubtedly leads to more victims protesting the release of more prisoners than if no public funds were spent trying to locate these people.  Shouldn’t we be allowed to see the effect of these protests on the parole decision, especially a protest procured in such a state funded manner?  If you are guessing that we do not get to see what the effect of victim protests is on the parole decision making process, you are correct.  

In my opinion, it’s fair to first ask why the state has taken it upon itself to spend the public’s scarce financial resources in order to  get more aggrieved persons more involved in the protest of the proper release of prisoners on parole.  Then, the second reasonable question I would ask is this, “How much weight do we (and should we) accord such protests?”

I placed quotations around the word victim, because the definition of “victim” for TDCJ is not what you might think.  “Victim” according to the broadest possible definition imaginable (the one they use) may include an immediate family member of a crime victim, as well as “other interested persons”. 

Huh?  I thought we Texans were supposed to be all about smaller government.  You know, rugged individualism, etc.  Yes, there really are state employees, with benefits, etc. whose job it is to scour the earth to try to locate all the true victims of past crimes, as well as any other folks who might actually give a damn if some guy gets released from prison.  No kidding. 

I’m just wondering why we can’t have a system where we allow the true victims of crime, if they choose to do so, to simply take it upon themselves to spend a few minutes on the internet or pick up the phone and figure out what, if anything, they can do to let their opinions be known to parole officials about how they feel regarding the release of a particular inmate?  And if they do take it upon themselves to let their opinion be known, isn’t also fair to allow the intelligent and highly educated Parole Board/Parole Commissioners who cast votes to still consider other views instead of being afraid to defy the wishes, no matter how unreasonable, of individual crime victims?

Besides the broad concept of “victim” protests, the District Attorney’s office that prosecuted the crime in the first place may also protest, and the DA’s are given notice and the opportunity to protest well before the inmate is even considered for parole.  More of your tax dollars at work.

A few DA’s, like the one from Williamson County, actively protest parole for many of the people they’ve previously convicted, in addition to their infamous habit of seeking, and obtaining, very long sentences for crimes that one wouldn’t expect would normally carry such harsh sentences.  When the legendarily “tough on crime” DA’s from Harris or Bexar counties look downright fair by comparison, something’s not right. 

I think the residents of Williamson County, and a few other places (Comal County, for example) ought to be charged higher state sales tax rates than other places, since they like to put their bad guys behind bars for such extremely long periods of time, then they go out of their way to see to it that these same bad guys stay behind bars longer than everyone else.  But that’s a topic for another blog post…

Incredibly, we have a system in Texas where prisoners are only interviewed by a voting Parole official in approximately 2% of the cases, and yet ALL “victims” get to speak to the lead voter, in every single instance where they want to do so.  No, really. 

The excuse given for not requiring the voters at the Board of Pardons and Paroles to actually sit down and talk to the prisoner, and then decide when he’s ready to go home, is a lack of money.  Or, maybe it’s claimed that such interviews would not provide any useful information, so why do it?  If such nonsense were to be officially asserted by anyone at TDCJ, I’d be surprised.

Millions are spent on “Victim Services” instead of on the additional salaries involved with having more Board Members and/or Commissioners.  We currently have 6 Board Members and 12 Commissioners who vote the majority of cases, and a Board Member in Austin who is the Head of the Board of Pardons and Paroles.  That’s not a lot of people, considering the enormous number of cases that these hard working folks review every day. 

We do more damage to the integrity of the system by allowing crime victims (and those who enjoy blaming all of life’s woes on a criminal event) to monopolize the limited time of the extremely busy (overworked?) Parole Board Members/Commissioners.  As incredible as all of this may seem, that’s exactly what we’ve got here in the Lone Star State.

I’m afraid that the above reality is not only the truth, but it gets worse. The substance of the “protests”, whether written, oral, or both, is kept completely secret from the entire world.  The danger, of course, is that a person protesting the release of a person they almost always despise may be able to provide biased, exaggerated, or even false information to the lead voter in any given prisoner’s parole review consideration.  Sadly, the inmate (or the inmate’s attorney) will never have any way to challenge the veracity of the representations that were made by the protester, and the voter is likely to take such dubious information as truth.

In theory, allowing the victim of a crime to participate in the parole process sounds reasonable.  However, crime victims are already encouraged to become quite involved in the prosecution of persons accused of criminal behavior at the courthouse, where the punishments are handed out.  Prosecutors customarily work closely with victims of crime, especially in case of violent crimes and crimes involving deviant sexual behavior. 

It is extremely common for a prosecutor to seek out the views of the crime victim and his/her loved ones and then honor the wishes of a victim (and/or the victim’s family) in negotiating plea agreements and in deciding which cases to take to trial.  It really does seem proper and totally appropriate to give real respect and meaning to the views of victims at the trial stage of the criminal justice process.  It is also some of the most noble and valuable work performed by prosecutors. 

By getting victims into the parole scene, the crime victims, and their family members, and other “interested persons” get a second bite at the apple.  Not only did they get to have a great deal of influence over the prosecution of those accused of the crimes, but their influence is multiplied if their protest is a key factor when the prisoner is to be considered for parole.

If this broad category of victims is automatically given the opportunity to have an audience with the lead voter at the Board Office that is responsible for determining if the Offender will be released on parole, it is fair to ask what the effect of all these protests is on the inmate’s opportunity to make parole.  Yet, the answer is kept as a closely guarded secret in the Board Offices.

I’ve pondered this cause and effect question for a long time.  Regrettably,  despite TDCJ’s official position that a victim protest is merely a “factor” among many, I have come to believe that the truth would likely shock the public.  I would estimate, and it is just my educated guess, that parole is denied in 90 to 99% of the cases where a “victim” protest is on file, regardless of the inmate’s rehabilitation, character, efforts at complying with the prison’s many rules and policies, family support network, job opportunities, etc. etc.  If I am correct, the effect of the protest undermines the integrity of the entire parole review process.

It’s obvious that I believe the manner in which victim protests are handled at the Board of Pardons and Paroles is severely flawed. Immediate reform is needed. Unfortunately, I have not seen any indication that the Board is going to undertake such reforms voluntarily.  If the victim protest really does equate to “Parole Denied”, we’ve given the victim more power than the judge, the jury, and the entire TDCJ Board of Pardons and Paroles.

My Field Trip to The Texas Prison Museum PART II

As I near my 42nd birthday, it should be obvious to me by now that it is not wise to make blind assumptions and jump to conclusions, particularly given my chosen profession.  Shame on me!  I was ignorant to have made assumptions about what the Texas Prison Museum is all about, since, until yesterday, I’d never been to the museum and had never even seen any information about the museum.  For the record, however, I wasn’t totally wrong.  Mostly wrong is much more accurate.

As I blogged the night before I went to the museum, I suspected that the upcoming excursion would demonstrate that the museum is little more than a PR device for TDCJ.  The museum is, in fact, not part of TDCJ at all.  It’s a non profit organization, and it is  a pretty fascinating place to spend a couple of hours.  The museum’s website is www.txprisonmuseum.org

The museum is run by a former TDCJ Warden, Jim Willet, and several other former career TDCJ employees work at the museum.  I suspect there are quite a few people living in the Huntsville area who are former TDCJ employees, given the number and age of the prisons within 30 miles of Huntsville.

It is obvious that the people who run the museum care very much about portraying the history of the Texas prison system in an unbiased and accurate light.  As an added benefit, I found the staff to be very friendly and helpful to the museum’s guests.  The gift “shop”, which is really just the lobby of the museum, had plenty of interesting things for sale, including some hand made items made by prisoners.

Ok, maybe the average Joe would not be curious enough to last 2 hours in this unique place, but anyone who has an interest in the Texas penal system will enjoy their visit.  I was there for well over an hour, and regretted that I had to leave in order to make the drive over to Navasota (Luther Unit). My field trip ended when my professional responsibilities beckoned.

It should come as no surprise that the museum’s most valuable “artifact” is the one and only Texas electric chair, nicknamed “Old Sparky”, that was formerly used to execute 361 people from 1924 to 1964.

As a side note, the state has executed 468 people by lethal injection since 1982.  Hmmm, let’s see, 361 people electrocuted in 40 years, then 468 people injected over the past 29 years…I thought the death penalty was supposed to be a deterrent for would be criminals.  I try to imagine, as preposterous as it seems, that the typical person who is just about to murder another human being stops and says to himself, “Well, I could get the death penalty if I do this, so I better not.”  Anyway, I digress.

The museum does an excellent job of presenting the history of executions in Texas, without revealing any real bias one way or the other on the use of the death penalty in the Texas justice system.  Despite the exhibits on the death penalty, it would be a mistake to assume that the history of capital punishment in Texas is the museum’s focus.  Instead, there was a great deal of emphasis placed on the many changes to the Texas prison system over the period from 1848 to the present.

There have been plenty of changes over the years, and my one criticism of the museum is that it fails to do much of anything to ask why so many failures have persisted for so long, and why so few people were held accountable for these colossal failures.  To this day, despite giving lip service to “rehabilitation”, the budgetary limitations that prevent meaningful educational and vocational opportunities are a severe impediment to effectuating the kind of rehabilitation that we should expect.  Anyway, back to my tour of the museum…

One of the more interesting exhibits is the one in which the museum honors TDCJ employees killed in the line of duty.  Some of them died in car or bus crashes, but a good number died at the hands of prisoners.  This serves as a sober reminder that a prison can still be a very dangerous place to work.  The museum honored these people by providing the tragic details of their deaths.

My favorite exhibit is the one that provides insights into some of the more famous (and infamous) inmates that have passed through the Texas prison system.  David Crosby, Olympic Gold Medalist and Dallas Cowboy Hall of Fame Wide Receiver Bob Hayes, among others.

2 Time Olympic Gold Medalist Bob Hayes

There is no doubt in my mind that I will return to the museum soon, and I will surely learn and experience things that I did not adequately see during the inital visit.  I’ll gladly pay the 4 bucks it costs to get in the door.  Kids are charged $3, and little kids are free.  If I recall correctly, TDCJ employees also have to pay $3.

When I do go back to the Texas Prison Museum, I am going to make sure I block out at least another hour or two, and I’m sure I will learn something.

 

 

My Field Trip To The Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville PART I

Tomorrow, I will go to the official Texas Prison Museum, and I have no idea what’s in store for me.  I’ve never been there and have never read anything online about it.  But, I’m going.

I’ve driven past the museum many times on the way to or from a prison in the area (and boy, do they have a lot of them in that area!).  I’ve always found it curious that there is a museum that celebrates the prisons.  Don’t get me wrong, prisons have their rightful place in any free, fair, and developed society.  But I’m just not so sure about building museums to honor all of the misery.

Ok, maybe I’m crazy.  Maybe the misery part will be hidden from the visitors to the museum, but I truly hope not.  The misery will likely just take a back seat to the state funded need to pay some kind of homage to all of the tough Texans who did their part over the years to inflict misery.  Who knows, maybe it’ll be yet another opportunity to remind myself that I live in a state where they kill people who’ve killed people.  Some would say we need to do a whole lot more state sponsored killing, but that’s a topic for another day…

Luckily, I just so happen to have a couple of hours to kill in between appointments tomorrow, so I am definitely going to have to see if visiting the museum does anything to change my instinctual feelings.

Of course, I plan to take some pictures and I will upload them to the blog.  Also, I will do my best to give a little synopsis of what I see at this place.  Even though I’ve probably been in at least 50 of the 120+ prisons that are part of the massive TDCJ prison system, I guess I really am curious to learn as much as I can about the history and life of penal institutions in the great state of Texas.  I hope that the historical facts are presented in a fair and neutral manner.  I won’t hold my breath.

 

To Be Continued…