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