TYC parole is under fire

Web Posted: 08/05/2007 01:53 AM CDT

Lisa Sandberg

Austin Bureau

AUSTIN Juveniles who kill, rob and rape in Texas can be sentenced to long prison terms, but barring bad behavior are routinely released years before they complete their sentences. Parole decisions in the juvenile system are based exclusively on how the convict behaves, not on the heinousness of the crime.

And if the behavior is good, their cases are handled like Tommy's.

He was 15 when he received a 20-year sentence in Central Texas for raping a 7-year-old girl but was paroled after serving just three years and nine months in a Texas Youth Commission facility.

"Basically, you had to get along well with the guards," said the 20-year-old, who spoke on condition his last name not be used.

The state's juvenile correctional system came under fire this year over a series of accusations that its guards abused prisoners in several facilities, and because sentences were often extended for years, even on minor offenses, if the youths were classified as "non-compliant."

It led to a drive to review sentences and release youths who had served their original sentences and then some.

But the flip side is also true, and some lawmakers are demanding that TYC officials factor into their parole decisions a youth's original crime and sentence, not just his or her behavior behind bars.

They're demanding tougher sanctions on juveniles who commit brutal crimes.

"It seems unfathomable that (children who commit murder) are getting out in three years. I think the serious crimes deserve a longer punishment," said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who sits on the joint legislative committee overseeing the TYC.

He vowed to make his views known to the agency's special panel that is now reviewing the criteria used in deciding parole.

Records obtained by the San Antonio Express-News show that since 2002, nearly a third of the 118 paroled offenders who received fixed TYC sentences for violent crimes served less than 30 percent of their terms. Almost three-quarters of the group served less than half their terms.

A Harris County youth who was given a 30-year sentence for arson served less than seven years for the crime. A Dallas County youth who got a 35-year sentence for aggravated assault served less than a fifth of his term. A Tarrant County youth was paroled after serving less than a quarter of his 20-year sentence for aggravated robbery.

The public may think a 20-year sentence in the juvenile system means 20 years or close to it. But judges know that with good behavior, parole is automatic either when the kid reaches 19 lawmakers changed it from 21 in response to the TYC scandal or upon completing his or her minimum sentence.

The minimum sentence for capital murder is 10 years. It's three years for a first-degree felony, two years for a second-degree felony and one year for a third-degree felony.

"I might give them a long sentence because I thought the crime was so bad, but it won't hold up," said Bexar County Juvenile District Court Judge Laura Parker. "The state has to prove that they did not do what they're supposed to do (after arriving at TYC)."

Parker said there is good reason to offer a carrot to even the worst juvenile offenders, asking, "If they know that they're going to go to (adult) prison anyway, what's the incentive to try at TYC?"

The worst of the worst at least those so regarded by local courts are tried as adults and never make it to the juvenile system.

"The whole premise behind the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation," said Isela Gutierrez, director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, part of the not-for-profit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Behavior is perhaps the best indicator of whether a youth is being rehabilitated, Gutierrez said.

But the early release of juveniles who committed violent offenses rankles Bill Hawkins, chief of the juvenile division at the Harris County District Attorney's office.

"Basically the keys are in the kids' hands," he said. "You can have a genuine reformation or you can have a street-smart kid who's capable of manipulating the system. Some kids can behave pretty well if they know they're being watched."

Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, who sits on the House Corrections Committee, lamented that lawmakers did not address the criteria for parole when they passed major TYC reforms this year. "This needs looking at," he said.

The idea behind Texas' hybrid system is that young people are not as culpable for their crimes as adults.

"We've always had the Boy Scout/concentration camp dilemma," said Christi Mallette, parole administrator for TYC. "Some of these kids have committed some very heinous crimes." But ultimately, the agency "takes the approach that these are youths. We feel that they still deserve a second chance, that they are workable."

Roughly 7 percent of juveniles who enter TYC, the most violent offenders, had a specific prison term called a "determinate sentence." But regardless of its length or the original offense, TYC can hold youth past their minimum sentence only if they fail to complete a rehabilitation program or commit a violation within 30 days of the date before their minimum sentence ends.

The offender can be sent to the adult prison system at age 19 only if TYC can convince a judge that the youth has not been rehabilitated. In either case, the burden is on the state.

Thirteen juveniles in Bexar County last year were certified to stand trial as adults, while 28 received determinate sentences in juvenile court, said Jill Mata, chief of the Bexar district attorney's juvenile division.

Tommy, the 20-year-old parolee, said he deserved to be released after serving a small fraction of his sentence for aggravated sexual assault. "When my crime happened, I was 14. I was sentenced at 15. I'm a completely different person than I was when I was 14."

He lives with his dad in a mobile home. His father is a parolee himself, having been in an adult prison for running a methamphetamine lab. "We try to be there for each other," Tommy said.

A tall, handsome kid with curly blonde hair, he has managed to stay out of trouble since his release, waiting tables for $2.13an hour plus tips, helping his dad in their ornamental iron shop and working as a concert promoter.

His dad said TYC should take an offender's original crime into account in deciding parole, though in his son's case he described the charge of aggravated sexual assault as "absurd."

Every day is a struggle, his dad said. "We have our moments, moments when we have to adjust to each other.

"When you go into prison, you don't mature like you do on the outside. When your clothes need washing, someone does them. Someone cooks your chow. When you need medical, you go to medical. There's some relearning being on the outside."

If all goes well, Tommy's dad will finish parole in 2008. Tommy will be 35 when his own parole ends in 2022. His father worries that one slip-up could send him to an adult prison.

"It's an absolute miracle if that boy makes it," he said. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

lsandberg@express-news.net --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Online at: http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/crime/stories/MYSA080507.01B.tyc_parole.34236da.html