I'm glad to see that this very important story appeared in the Chicago Tribune. I'm so glad that this is getting exposed. But how tragic for these children and their families. -Angela
Texas reviews scandal-plagued juvenile prison system
By Howard Witt
Tribune senior correspondent
March 26, 2007, 8:02 PM CDT
HOUSTON -- The sentences of many of the 4,700 delinquent youths now being held in Texas' juvenile prisons might have been arbitrarily and unfairly extended by prison authorities and thousands could be freed in a matter of weeks as part of a sweeping overhaul of the scandal-plagued juvenile system, state officials say.
Jay Kimbrough, a special master appointed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to investigate the system after allegations surfaced that some prison officials were coercing imprisoned youths for sex, said he would assemble a committee to review the sentence of every youth in the system.
The goal, Kimbrough said, is to release any youth whose sentence was improperly extended without justification or in retaliation for filing complaints. In his initial review of sentences, Kimbrough said, he had found many questionable extensions, adding that some experts estimate that more 60 percent of the state's youthful inmates might be languishing under wrongful detention.
Such a mass emptying of a state's juvenile jails would be unprecedented, experts said.
Among the leading candidates for early release is Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old black girl from the small east Texas town of Paris, who was sent to prison for up to 7 years for shoving a hall monitor at her high school while other young white offenders convicted of more serious crimes received probation in the town's courts.
Shaquanda's story was the subject of a March 12 Tribune article that triggered hundreds of Internet blog articles and thousands of message board postings and led to a nationwide letter-writing campaign to the Texas governor decrying perceived racial discrimination in her case.
Cotton, now 15, has been incarcerated at a youth prison in Brownwood, Texas, for the last year on a sentence that could run until her 21st birthday. But like many of the other youths in the system, she is eligible to earn earlier release if she achieves certain social, behavioral and educational milestones while in prison.
But officials at the Ron Jackson Correctional Complex have repeatedly extended Shaquanda's sentence because she refuses to admit her guilt and because she was found with contraband in her cell--an extra pair of socks.
"I do have an interest in that case," Kimbrough said. "Based on what I've already seen and heard, that's exactly the kind of thing I want to know more about, if that typifies in some way why sentences are being extended."
Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas chapter of the ACLU, attended a meeting in Austin on last Friday where Kimbrough outlined his sentence review plan and invited civil rights groups to nominate members to the special review panel.
"Everybody in the room thought we should take Shaquanda's case first," Harrell said, because of its high profile.
But if the teenager is released, Kimbrough noted, the decision will have nothing to do with whether she was the victim of racial discrimination in the schools and courtrooms of Paris, as civil rights groups have alleged. Instead, it will be based on whether she has been treated arbitrarily by prison officials since she has been incarcerated.
Texas' juvenile prison system, known as the Texas Youth Commission, was first rocked by scandal last month after revelations surfaced that two administrators at a youth prison in west Texas had allegedly coerced sex from inmates for years and that prison officials and local prosecutors chose not to pursue the cases.
Since then, the scandal has widened as reports surfaced of cover-ups and alleged sex abuse by guards and administrators at other prisons. More than a thousand investigations have now been opened. Meanwhile, Kimbrough discovered that 111 employees of the youth agency had felony arrests or convictions and another 437 had misdemeanor arrests or charges.
The top leadership of the youth commission was forced out, the board overseeing the agency resigned and Perry essentially placed the commission into receivership when he appointed Kimbrough to clean up the mess.
Texas state legislators are rushing to pass bills to overhaul the juvenile prison agency.
Civil rights advocates have long been concerned that Texas' system of indeterminate sentences for youths places too much discretion in the hands of prison authorities, who retain the power to hold or release youths at will. Now the sex scandal--and the concern that some victimized youths may have been threatened with longer detentions to keep them quiet--has prompted Kimbrough to examine the entire practice.
Nearly 90 percent of juveniles incarcerated inside Texas youth prisons were sent there on indeterminate sentences that could run as long as their 21st birthdays. But many of those inmates become eligible for release after serving only nine months, if prison authorities are satisfied that they have completed all the steps, or "phases," of an elaborate behavioral modification program.
"The system is wide open for abuse and corruption," said the ACLU's Harrell. "How difficult would it be for a 12-year-old kid to file a complaint on an assistant superintendent of a facility when that assistant superintendent is actually the one who is sexually abusing her and that same person gets to decide when she gets out? Basically the official gets to say, 'Comply and keep quiet or I'll keep you here until you're 21.' "
Harrell, who will serve on Kimbrough's sentence review panel, said the members intend to be careful not to release truly violent youths who ought to remain behind bars.
"If kids have behaved violently, then those are the ones that may very well have a justification for their sentence extension," Harrell said. "But most of the cases I have heard about have to do with petty instances, like Shaquanda's contraband socks."
The "phases" system also contains a built-in Catch-22 for youths, like Shaquanda, whose legal appeals are still making their way through the courts. One of the first phases that must be satisfied is a requirement that youths admit their guilt--an admission that would instantly compromise their appeals.
For his part, Kimbrough says he feels a sense of urgency about his review.
"As fast as we can do this, that's my goal," said Kimbrough, a former deputy attorney general. "Any time the government is holding somebody that ought not be held, that's urgent to me."
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune