A Discussion about Juvenile Justice in Texas

Last weekend, Marc A. Levin of Right On Crime served on a panel of the 2012 Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. The panel discussion, part of the TribFest’s “Law and Order” series of events, focused on juvenile justice issues in Texas. Also serving on the panel were Deborah Fowler of Texas Appleseed, Ana Yanez-Correa of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and Michael Griffiths, the recently-named head of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. The panel discussion touched on several issues, but Levin spoke at length about flawed school discipline policies and how they needlessly lead far too many students into the criminal justice system. The Texas Tribune’s live-blog of the panel discussion can be read here.

UPDATE: The Texas Tribune has posted audio of the event here.


Former Prisoners turned Entrepreneurs through Private Programs

Defy Ventures describes its program as “MBA-like training, real business plan competitions, and real money.” While such a program would likely grab the attention of many would-be-entrepreneurs, the unique thing about Defy is that their students are all former prisoners.

Defy Ventures is a New York based non-profit organization whose managers recognize that “many former drug dealers and gang leaders share similar skill sets and talents with top business leaders.” For example, one student, Jose Vasquez, a former drug dealer, knew that the way to differentiate himself from other drug dealers was to make his customers happy—taking them to dinner, buying them birthday presents. Today, he runs Happy Vida, a concierge service running errands for New York Professionals.

Defy Ventures helps ambitious former prisoners by providing a one-year entrepreneurial training and mentorship program. According to Defy’s website, the program offers participants a 45-day introductory training during evenings and weekends, after which they may be one of the 60 committed applicants who will qualify for a prestigious internship with Defy. The internship provides them with the chance to pitch a business concept to investors for a 1 in 4 shot at winning $3,000 in seed funding. Ultimately, participants present their results to investors in a final business plan competition where $100,000 in additional funding is on the table.

Catherine Rohr, Defy’s founder and CEO, teaches participants not only the textbook knowledge needed to run a company, but also interpersonal skills—such as smiling and handshakes. With the help of supportive funders, volunteers, mentors, and a devoted private sector network, Defy has helped start twenty-one businesses since its founding in 2010.

In 2004, Catherine Rohr founded a similar program in Texas called Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). While Rohr is no longer involved with PEP, its mission continues. PEP starts with applicants who are currently in prison, and after a competitive process, transfers eligible prisoners to the Cleveland Correctional Facility, out of which PEP operates. After training and being reintegrated into society, PEP boasts a return-to-prison rate of less than 5%, an employment rate of 100% within 90 days, and over 100 businesses launched.


A Report from the Federalist Society on Mens Rea

It used to be that all crimes required two basic elements: an actus reus (a prohibited act) and a mens rea (a guilty mind). In recent years, however, there have been a growing number of strict liability crimes that dispense with the mens rea element in state criminal codes.

This summer, the Federalist Society released a survey of state mens rea requirements by Professor John S. Baker, Jr. It begins by tracing the history of mens rea requirements and the rise of strict liability offenses. The history highlights the Model Penal Code’s (MPC) introduction of a default mens rea provision.

The MPC requires that for all crimes without an explicit culpable mental state, and without language clearly dispensing of one, the default mental requirement shall be “purposely, knowingly, or recklessly.” This provision was intended to guarantee that a culpable mental state remained a necessary element for any crime. The study concludes, however, that the MPC’s default mens rea provision has actually had the effect of weakening the role of the mental state in state criminal law.

The study offers three reasons for this paradox. First, the MPC has “‘purposely’ stripped culpability of its normative quality.” Second, “[c]odification freed state legislatures from a sense of obligation to common-law principles.” Third, states that have not followed the MPC’s strict distinction between crime and violation have problematically “opened up possibilities of interpretation by the courts.”

The survey focuses on the fourteen states that have adopted the MPC mens rea provision or a similar provision, and it points out some of the common problems the states’ courts have faced when interpreting the requirement.

Among these problems are the courts’ struggles to interpret legislative intent and a disparity in how much analysis appellate courts do when determining legislative intent. It highlights concerns that courts have about defendants’ constitutional challenges for vagueness or due process violations, concerns about non-blameworthy conduct being criminalized, and the provision’s applicability outside of the criminal code.

Finally, the study encourages states to reassess the adequacy of the MPC’s default mens rea framework. It suggests that the “erosion of mens rea since the advent of the MPC” requires that particular rules need to “reflect the primacy of the principle of mens rea in criminal law.”


Renewed Emphasis on Victims at the Department of Justice

For the last two years, various U.S. Department of Justice officials have been making a federal case out of victims’ rights. The unfortunate trend is to relegate victims to mere afterthought in the criminal justice system; the Department of Justice seeks to increase their prominence and meet their needs within the system.

From collecting data on victims and their needs after a criminal event, to ensuring that law enforcement has the tools necessary to gather and process evidence provided by a victim, the Department is refocusing its attention to this oft-forgotten stakeholder in the criminal justice system.

Indeed, the true—and sometimes only—aggrieved party to a criminal event, victims must be recognized and empowered to seek justice and achieve recompense, whether monetarily or emotionally.


Encouraging New CSG Report on Declining Recidivism in 7 States

This morning, the Council of State Governments Justice Center released an encouraging new report on declining recidivism rates. The report examined the 2005 and 2007 recidivism rates in seven states: Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, and Vermont. In all seven states, recidivism rates in 2007 were significantly lower than those in 2005. Indeed, one state–Michigan–realized an extraordinary decline of 18%. As the report explains, between 2005 and 2007, these seven states made a concerted effort to identify the offenders most at risk for re-offending, and they prioritized their limited re-entry resources for these at-risk populations. The Secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections explained his department’s new philosophy: “One of my wardens constantly asks his staff, right down to the line staff, ‘What can we do to reduce recidivism?’ This gets them thinking that reentry is an important part of what they do…that they can do something to improve the likelihood that the people who leave their custody are successful when they return home.” The results speak for themselves:


Plummeting Recidivism Rates


Website Allows Users to See Full Legal Consequences of Criminal Records

A new website, launched by the American Bar Association and the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, is revealing many of the overlooked punishments that accompany criminal convictions—those punishments not administered by the court. The website, Collateral Consequences, gives users a resource to find, in one place, all federal and state legal consequences of a criminal record.

For example, after a guilty plea, former offenders often find themselves unable to vote, unable to work in many professions, and even unable to live where they want to live. These lifelong punishments are often unknown at the time one is considering entering a plea.

As Daryl Atkinson, a staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, reflected after his prison term, forty months of incarceration was “a blip on the radar screen of life…[and yet] when I’m released I face this web of invisible punishments that I knew nothing about.”

While “collateral consequences” have always been a part of our legal system, the ABA and DOJ note that over the past twenty years, they have become more problematic because “they are more numerous and more severe, they affect more people, and they are harder to avoid or mitigate.”

Collateral Consequences is meant to provide a resource for those accused of crimes and their lawyers. The website allows users to search state and federal laws that would affect the ability of people with criminal records to reenter society. Users can search by state, types of restrictions, and types of offenses.

So far, the website includes information on state laws in nine states: Colorado, Vermont, Minnesota, Iowa, Nevada, Texas, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and New York. The remaining states are expected to be added within 18 months.

The DOJ and ABA hope the website will be used by those facing a potential life-long criminal record to be aware of the “legal limbo” they may face before they are caught in it.


Texas Crime Rate Falling Faster Than the National Crime Rate

For several decades now, crime has been dropping across the United States–but not all crime drops are created equal. The crime rate drop in Texas has far exceeded the national crime rate drop. This trend holds true for every single category of both violent and property crime. Moreover, as Texas policymakers are happy to point out, over the last five years, crime has dropped as Texans have spent less on prisons, not more.


Now Hiring: Communications Director for Right on Crime

We’re hiring! Right On Crime is a national campaign to reassert the conservative position on criminal justice. The campaign is a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a research institute in Austin, TX committed to limited government, free markets, private property rights, individual liberty and personal responsibility.

This position will liaise with National and Texas internet-based media to insert Right on Crime into the media narrative and serve as a fast-responder to relevant new items.

Responsibilities and Duties include:

  • Primary point of contact for National and Texas media for Right on Crime;
  • Serve as fast-responder to media attention and inquiries surrounding Right on Crime’s priority issues;
  • Proactively seek media opportunities in line with Right on Crime’s priority issues and pitch relevant news media;
  • Promote the research efforts of the policy staff into the print and broadcast media;
  • Work directly with Policy staff and Directors to liaise, advise, and develop their communications agenda;
  • Manage supporting communications or coalitions consultant contracts, if any;
  • Edit weekly commentary submissions from policy analyst and see each article through the approval process;
  • Prepare and distribute press releases, statements, and commentaries;
  • Develop and implement media plans for major research releases and events, such as press conferences;
  • Organize press conferences to promote Right on Crime’s research;
  • Right on Crime signator engagement/management and media placement, including social media;


  • Ten years’ experience in media relations, journalism, public relations, or related field;
  • Must have a strong network of national media contacts;
  • Proven capability in traditional and social media;
  • Must be self-directed and goal oriented;
  • Excellent interpersonal, oral and written communication skills;
  • Demonstrated support of free market principles;
  • Willingness and availability to work long hours and weekends when necessary, especially during the Texas legislative session;
  • Intermediate to Expert knowledge with Microsoft Office Package, including but not limited to: Outlook, Word, Power Point and Excel programs;

Please send cover letter, resume, salary requirement, references and writing samples to:

Greg Sindelar

Texas Public Policy Foundation

[email protected]


Louisiana Closes Prisons, Saves Taxpayer Dollars

Louisiana state officials have decided to close another prison. The prison closure is the third in a series of closures aimed at decreasing budgetary strains within the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. In the first year alone, closure of those three prisons is estimated to save Louisiana taxpayers almost $9 million.

Importantly, these closures are easily effectuated without any resulting harm to public safety.

As of December of 2011 (from which we have the most recent available data), there were over 8,000 vacant prison beds across Louisiana – a fact that supports the closing of not only these three facilities, but additional facilities as well, to further ease the burden on Louisiana’s taxpayers.


Ineffective School Discipline Policies Threaten Public Safety

Law enforcement leaders recently banded together to highlight an important – but perhaps surprising –issue in public safety: school discipline.

San Bernardino County, CA District Attorney Michael Ramos, Sheriff Keith Royal, president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel, Ceres Police Chief Art de Werk, and the president of the California Police Chiefs Association all recently gathered in California to highlight ineffective school discipline policies that actually detract from public safety.

The officials noted that suspending and expelling students for minor offenses increases the number of youths out of the supervised school environment and on the streets, where they are far more likely to engage in troublemaking or even criminal behavior. The law enforcement coalition further pointed out the link between suspensions and dropping out of school, impacting both crime rates and educational gains.

The Sheriffs, Police Chiefs, and District Attorney spoke out after a report released by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids found high rates of suspension for low-level misbehavior. The group contrasted these poor outcomes with the positive gains and cost savings possible with alternative, more traditional school discipline measures which often involve restorative justice.

Right on Crime and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have researched the ineffectiveness of zero-tolerance and inflexible school discipline policies. Our most recent report, which can be found here, found that schools are proportionally less safe today than after 15 years of zero tolerance.