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Report Suggests Limitations on the Juvenile Certification Methodology in Texas

| September 1, 2011

A researcher at the University of Texas, Michele Deitch, has reported on recently compiled data on the effectiveness of transferring juvenile offenders to the adult criminal justice system in Texas, a process called “certification.” The results do not reflect well on the process.

According to the report, which compared juveniles certified to adult courts to those given a determinate sentence, which commences with the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), the populations of both groups are comparable, in terms of age, gender, and racial composition.  The main difference the authors of the report found was in county of origin. Harris County certifies more juveniles than any other county.

Importantly, the report also reveals that there is a great deal of similarity in the underlying nature of the offense between juveniles certified as adults, and those committed to the TYC for the beginning of their sentence. Aggravated robbery was the most common offense, followed by sexual assault, for both categories of juveniles. Moreover, even though it is a common assumption that juveniles tried as adults represent the “worst of the worst,” 4.8% of those who were not placed in the adult system during this time period were charged with homicide.  Finally, the populations are also similar in terms of criminal history: for example, those with no prior referrals represent 24% of juveniles receiving a determinate sentence, and 29% of those juveniles certified during the time period.

The results of this report compel several important questions.  First, given that those juveniles deemed to be offenders serious enough to be certified as adults are so similar to those considered to be deserving of the reform and rehabilitation programs available in the TYC, perhaps the certification process is not being applied appropriately? Second, because reform and rehabilitation are an integral component of sentences in the TYC, and almost nonexistent in adult corrections facilities, what factors do judges consider in determining a juvenile is not a candidate for reform and rehabilitation? And is Harris County’s high certification rate an accurate reflection of juvenile crime rates in that area—or an aberration from effective sentencing? This report provides the starting point for a very serious look at juvenile certification in Texas.

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