The overarching question of your book is philosophical: are some people inherently bad, and if so, can society correct their moral failings? Has working on this project changed the way you think about human nature?
In the book, we do not so much philosophize or ponder whether people are inherently bad. Instead of asking why juvenile offenders initially get involved in serious and violent behavior, we are more interested in questions about “what to do with them” once they do.
Through Determinate Sentencing (broadly called Blended Sentencing in the book), the State of Texas has opted to give some of the most extreme serious and violent offenders one more chance to remain in the more protective and rehabilitative juvenile justice system, instead of being ushered to the adult justice system. In providing that opportunity, Texas, and really all juvenile justice systems, operate on the assumption that people are not inherently bad and that they can change. Our book starts at the point change “can” begin for the offenders—the process of sentencing the serious and violent offenders and how they progress through the facilities and programs of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) in the search for change. The book then moves to an examination of the process of determining who has demonstrated enough change while incarcerated to be released back into the community after the TYC, and who has not demonstrated enough change and, instead, are transferred to the Texas prison system to continue serving their sentence. Next, the core of our book is an examination of the recidivism outcomes and factors related to recidivism among those deemed worthy of release instead of prison transfer. It is following this chapter on recidivism that our book is most philosophical. It is here where we ask the broader question of how many chances to change should we give to serious and violent juvenile offenders before they should essentially be considered "lost causes"?
This book has been the accumulation of more than a decade of research on juvenile offenders in the State of Texas. Working on this book has not really changed our view of human nature, or the ability of people to change. What has changed has been the realization that sometimes, even the best efforts and the best intentions may not be enough to change the trajectories of some individuals. Although juvenile delinquents are generally viewed as more amenable to treatment and more malleable than adult criminals, the reality is that despite their young age, there are powerful reasons why some juveniles engage in serious and violent behavior including murders, rapes, and destructive assaults. Sometimes, even the young are too far gone and too far broken to take another chance on them. It is sobering to acknowledge this, but the empirical evidence and data presented in our book confirm this reality.
|Aftermath of youth riot, Mountain View State School for Boys, ca. 1975.|
Courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Can you attribute high rates of recidivism to deficiencies in other institutions like the foster care system or job training programs?
I believe most individuals attribute recidivism and other negative outcomes to larger institutions such as juvenile correctional facilities and so on. But, to a large degree those individuals are wrong. One must realize that state institutions, like the Texas Youth Commission, are charged with changing more than a decade of behavior in a few short years. To expect major change is unrealistic, and to be frank, unfair to those who run and operate these agencies, and the youth they serve.
The offenders of focus in Lost Causes are the worst of the worst juvenile offenders society has to deal with but their offenses are almost always indicative of serious deficiencies across multiple life domains like family, neighborhood, and schools. Such deficiencies often exist at a personal level as well, including limitations regarding intelligence, emotional regulation, and a whole host of other factors that also interact with their environment to produce their behavior. And, these deficiencies start and manifest early in life—well before placement in the Texas Youth Commission or contact with authorities. As we noted in the book, many of these offenders started with a poor lot in life, no doubt. At the same time, the lost causes often choose to be lost. That cannot and should not be blamed on agencies doing their very best to help such offenders change their life trajectories.
Institutions could always do a better job at providing more programs, resources, and other opportunities to assist juvenile offenders in their efforts to rehabilitate. Some would not even use the word rehabilitate, because such offenders, if you look at their life histories, have never been habilitated to conventional society in the first place. To charge a state institution to fix those severe deficiencies in such a short amount of time, again, is unrealistic. Some offenders will take advantage of programs and treatments, and in addition to their personal industry, will break out of the system and become relatively productive citizens. These are individuals who, while still serious and violent as offenders, often rate lower on the scale of deficiencies and risk. Others will not take advantage of the programs offered to them, and these are offenders that often have greater deficiencies and higher levels of risk. For the latter group, going to TYC as a sentenced offender will simply be another institutionalization in a long line that will more likely than not characterize their whole life story. It is tragic, but it is not the fault of agencies that have tried to help and have exhausted all available options. Those who are quick to blame correctional facilities for recidivism or other outcomes often tend to ignore or utterly live in denial of the severity of serious, chronic, and violent offenders.
How does Texas differ from other states in juvenile sentencing and rehabilitation efforts?
Broadly, Texas does not do anything wholly different regarding juvenile sentencing and rehabilitation efforts than any other state juvenile correctional agency. Texas does provide for Determinate Sentencing, which is a sentencing vehicle whereby juvenile and adult sanctions are combined, with the potential for serious and violent delinquents to avoid adult sanctions (including placement in the Texas prison system) if they make progress while in the Texas Youth Commission. More than one-half of all states provide for such “blended sentencing” schemes, although Texas appears to make the most use of this sentencing process comparatively and was one of the first states in the nation to develop such a process.
In utilizing Determinate Sentencing, Texas does have a unique treatment program just for serious and violent offenders. At one time this was called the Capital Offender Program, but now it is called the Capital and Serious Violent Offender Treatment Program. It is an intense program often used for offenders who have received a determinate sentence. But the demand is high for this program, and due to its small group, intensive therapeutic nature, not all offenders who could benefit from it can receive it during the time they are incarcerated. But, it is certainly one of the more unique programs in the country for serious juvenile offenders.
You invite readers to draw their own conclusions after reading the evidence presented in this book. Who in the juvenile justice world do you really hope reads this book and what do you want them to take away from it?
A unique feature of our book is the last chapter. In this chapter each author sets out his or her thoughts related to the findings of the study, and really, anything they thought would be pertinent to know and discuss. This type of candor is not often found in academic books but the goal, as alluded to in the question, was really to challenge the reader to think about the findings from many different perspectives and draw their own conclusions.
|Youth “lockup” room, Mountain View State School for Boys, ca. 1975. |
Courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Perhaps one takeaway from the book and its findings is that there is no right answer. It is cliché and often frustrating for individuals to hear that statement. But another takeaway message from the book comes in the form of a question that is not altogether deliberate or forced upon the reader. That question boils down to where should we draw the line to separate the lost causes from those who deserve more efforts and chances for change? The question gets even more muddled and controversial when talking about young juvenile offenders. Overall, that is the question that we hope readers ponder—at what point should we simply wash our hands of offenders, forget rehabilitation, and consider long-term incapacitation as the best way to protect innocents in society? At what point should we still keep trying? These questions boil down to where should draw the line to separate the lost causes from those who deserve more efforts and chances for change? There are few easy answers.