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Recent editorials from Texas newspapers

Associated Press Updated: April 7, 2015 at 1:02 pm
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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. April 2, 2015.

17-year-olds shouldn't go to prison

A youngster who is not old enough to buy cigarettes in Texas is old enough to be sent to an adult state prison if convicted of a crime.

That's because since 1918 Texas law has defined an adult as one who is 17 or older, making it one of only nine states in the nation that does not classify youths under the age of 18 as juveniles.

As a result, those 17-year-olds who are charged with a crime can be punished in adult prisons rather than sent to facilities designed to rehabilitate juvenile offenders.

But recent actions by the Supreme Court and Congress suggest what many child advocates have maintained for a long time — that a youth who is 17, as a rule, doesn't have the mental maturity to be declared an adult.

The Supreme Court, for example, has decided it is unconstitutional to sentence teenagers under the age of 18 to a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

And Congress, reacting to the number of young offenders who were abused in adult penal institutions, in 2003 unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which required that 17-year-olds be separated (by "sight and sound") from older inmates, a mandate that added more expense for county jails, according to the Texas Tribune.

Several states, including Mississippi, Massachusetts and Illinois, in recent years have changed their laws to make 18 the threshold separating juveniles from adults, the Tribune said.

This week a bill that would do the same for Texas, House Bill 1205, was heard by a committee in the state House of Representatives, but the committee hasn't voted on it yet.

If the committee approves it and it passes the House, the bill is likely to meet opposition in the Senate from Sen. John Whitmire, of all people.

Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, has long fought for reform in the prison system, so his opposition to increasing the age for juveniles is somewhat surprising. His concern is that the change would negatively impact the juvenile justice system.

Other opponents cite the increased costs of adding a substantial number of 17-year-olds to juvenile facilities and rehabilitation programs.

The Legislative Budget Board, in its fiscal analysis of HB 1205, points out that last year there were 514 new admissions to adult correctional institutions for individuals who were 17 at the time of the offense, and that same year 7,587 people convicted of crimes committed at age 17 were placed on adult supervision.

It costs $54.89 a day to house a person in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (for adults) and $437.11 per day for a person in juvenile residential facilities. For those on parole, the numbers are $4.04 per day for adults compared to $31.93 for juveniles.

The costs are higher because the juvenile system is designed to rehabilitate rather than just punish. Thus, more programs, training and counseling are provided to help them avoid further criminal activity.

Proponents say that while the initial costs are higher, the state will save money in the long run by treating 17-year-olds as juveniles because the recidivism rate will be much less, and in the end many of these youngsters will be taxpayers rather than a drain on society.

Texas has made some strides in improving its juvenile justice system by creating more community-based programs and facilities. And Whitmire has authored legislation that makes another positive step by locating confined juveniles in facilities closer to their homes.

Although age limits in defining youths and adults can seem arbitrary, they are necessary for a workable the law.

What lawmakers must consider, as they wrestle with deciding whether to raise the adult age to 18, is what will be best for the child and, as a result, what will be best for society as a whole.

___

Houston Chronicle. March 30, 2015.

At an education crossroads: The school voucher issue is a distraction to the focus needed on public education.

While Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick scampers down a rabbit trail in pursuit of costly school-voucher legislation, an influential public education policymaker in the House is doing what's right for Texas school children and Texas taxpayers. State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, announced last week that the lower chamber will tackle the daunting task of finding a fair and equitable way for the state to fund its public schools.

By taking up the challenge instead of waiting for a state Supreme Court ruling, the low-key Republican chairman of the Public Education Committee shows us what a true representative of the people looks like. A former Killeen school board member, Aycock does the people's business with little fanfare, with an effort to be fair and open to all sides and with a goal to getting useful things accomplished.

Patrick's beloved voucher scheme would divert taxpayer money from public education to cover all or part of a student's tuition at a private or religious school, with little or no accountability to the people whose money is being spent. Aycock, on the other hand, understands the urgent need to invest in the state's public schools and their five million students, 60 percent of them economically disadvantaged. He's also aware, we're sure, that the number of low-income students is growing at twice the rate of the overall student population.

The voucher issue distracts from the fact that public schools, whatever their problems, are the backbone of every Texas community. They require attention and investment.

Aycock's proposal would add $800 million to the $2.2 billion the House already had allocated to public schools. In the Senate, Patrick and his voucher cohorts, including state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, have proposed about $1.8 billion less for public education than the House. Patrick also is pushing hard for tax cuts worth about $4.6 billion.

Taylor, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is sponsoring legislation that would create a $100 million private-school tuition program to help lower-income students pay for private or religious schools. Patrick told the Education Committee last week that the legislation would give approximately 10,000 students an opportunity to escape failing schools, primarily urban schools. Funding would come through donations from businesses, which in turn would receive tax credits.

Meanwhile, Aycock said the Legislature could not "sit back and wait and see what the courts say." Like state District Judge John Dietz, who struck down the state's method of funding public schools last summer, Aycock labeled the current method as inequitable, inadequate, obsolete and sometimes "just plain illogical."

The Killeen lawmaker did not offer details last week, although he said his plan would involve finding ways to equalize funding among districts, revising the cost-of-education index and increasing the amount of money schools get for transportation. Details, presumably, will come later.

Since the House and Senate are so far apart on the issues, they probably won't be addressed in depth until a special session this summer. When that happens, we urge lawmakers to look to the man from Killeen for direction and not the man pushing vouchers.

___

The Dallas Morning News. April 1, 2015.

Texas needs to stop criminalizing truancy

Texas, the second-most-populous state in the country, writes up more than twice the truancy cases in all other states combined.

And unlike almost every other state, Texas handles the vast majority of its truancy cases as class C misdemeanors in adult criminal court. Convictions can lead to a maximum fine of $500 and become part of a permanent, public adult criminal record.

"The theory is that the threat of punishment will incentivize attendance," Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, wrote in February. "But when almost 100,000 criminal truancy charges are brought each year against Texas schoolchildren, one has to think, this approach may not be working."

Officials are catching on. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into whether Dallas County courts provide due process to children, which is required by the Constitution.

Attorney General Eric Holder said, "This investigation continues the Justice Department's focus on identifying and eliminating entryways to the school-to-prison pipeline, and illustrates the potential of federal civil rights law to protect the rights of vulnerable children facing life-altering circumstances."

At the same time in Austin, the state Senate's Criminal Justice Committee was hearing Sen. John Whitmire's omnibus reform bill. It contains two critical changes: decriminalizing truancy and requiring schools to have more effective prevention programs. The committee sent the bill to the full Senate.

And the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee has held a hearing on several truancy reforms this session.

Under current law, a youngster can be referred to court for three unexcused absences in a four-week period. Schools must refer students who miss more than 10 times in a six-month period.

Schools are supposed to implement a truancy prevention program before filing a complaint, but the law doesn't say what that intervention should look like. According to one advocacy group, in some schools, the "prevention program" is just a phone call or a warning letter to parents.

Strong prevention and intervention programs are the only way to return most truants to class. Truancy often is a symptom of serious problems at home or school. Some kids may skip class out of defiance, but many more need to care for younger siblings, fear bullies or gangs, are homeless, or have physical or mental health challenges or learning differences.

Their parents may be so overwhelmed by their own difficulties that they don't monitor their kids' attendance. All these issues are best handled with school and community resources, not with an appearance in a criminal court.

Texas needs its kids in classrooms, not courtrooms. Reforming Texas truancy laws is an important step toward that goal.

___

San Antonio Express-News. March 31, 2015.

Confederate flag can't be separated from its cause

Just history; nothing more.

That's one, though not the only, argument for the state being legally obligated to produce specialty license plates displaying the Confederate flag — an issue with which the U.S. Supreme Court is now grappling. It heard arguments late last month.

Yes, history. So, let's get the history right. If we do, there can be no question that Texas shouldn't be legally compelled to produce plates that carry a symbol of racism. And that's precisely what the Confederate flag is. It cannot — nor should it — be separated from the cause for which Confederate soldiers fought.

In a recent commentary to this newspaper, former Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson argued that we should not view the actions of Confederate soldiers who fought under this banner through the "enlightened" or "politically correct" lens of 21st-century America.

So, let's not. Here's a key phrase from the 1861 "declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union." This is the document on which Texas relied to justify joining the Confederacy.

"(Texas) was received as a commonwealth holding (to the Confederacy), maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy."

Slavery wasn't the only issue, but it was the principal issue, that drove Southern states, including Texas, to secede. That issue, summed up, was: profit made possible by free labor, provided by human beings owned by other human beings who deemed Africans and their descendants as chattel, and who viewed themselves as morally and biologically superior.

That view is why the flag had such utility even after the war. The Ku Klux Klan embraced it. Proponents of Jim Crow flew it with pride. Oh, wait. That would involve looking at the issue through a 20th- and 21st-century lens as well.

But the point is that even viewed through the lens of 19th-century America, slavery was evil. It's why much of the Western world had already outlawed it by 1861. It's why the abolitionist movement was a full-throated and high-profile U.S. presence in the years preceding the Civil War. States and territories were bloodied by those for and against slavery. And the catalyst for the war, Abraham Lincoln's election, can no more be separated from Southern fears that their peculiar institution was threatened than up can be separated from down.

Yes, heroism occurred on the Confederate side. Battle brings that out in warriors. Yes, most Southern soldiers weren't slaveholders and they were fighting for their state. But this can't be separated from slavery either. They were fighting for slave-holding states, and their heroism supported the practice — and tore the country apart, an abhorrent act above and beyond slavery.

So, find another way to honor that heroism, even if it was fought for an issue that was, even in the 19th century, on the wrong side of history — and morality.

True, there are Buffalo Soldier plates, honoring those who fought in another unjust cause — against Native Americans. Sure, but many of these were ex-slaves with few options and not those principally fighting that war or driving the policy.

That war would have gone to its ignoble conclusion with or without them. There would have been no Confederacy without Confederate soldiers, fighting under the banner that originated with the Army of Northern Virginia.

The other prevalent argument involves the state essentially picking and choosing speech. Texas produces plates that allow other messages — the state rarely says no. Why not this one sought by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and proposed to the state by then-Land Commissioner Patterson?

Justice Anthony Kennedy and other justices got it right in their questions. Does this mean a state is then compelled to allow any racial slur? Swastikas, even?

No. The message matters because a license plate is not a bumper sticker. It is a state product that serves clear state purposes. Spreading a racist symbol should not be among them.

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The (McAllen) Monitor. March 29, 2015.

Border security: Gov. Abbott wants to add 500 DPS troopers to RGV

During his second trip to the Valley since being elected governor, Greg Abbott went before a throng of media in Weslaco last week and once again promised to curtail the Texas National Guard troops assigned here, but this time he did so with a caveat: He said this could be accomplished only if the Texas Legislature supports his border security bill.

Fair enough.

We, as well as our Valley lawmakers, agree with the overall philosophy behind Abbott's plan, which would amp up the number of Department of Public Safety troopers assigned to our region, improve and increase technology and equipment for officers who are guarding our border, and reduce (and, we hope eventually eliminate) the number of National Guard troops here.

But, as most things political, accomplishing all that isn't that simple nor is it easy to find the necessary funding.

Abbott's plan — which passed the Texas House last month — would add 500 DPS troopers to the Texas/Mexico border. But the current House budget only set aside enough money for 300 new DPS officers assigned.

Most of our Valley lawmakers and community leaders have openly endorsed adding troopers to our region rather than National Guard forces. The idea that seasoned and veteran peace officers would be posted here — as opposed to temporary assignees — would mean they would become a part of our community and would have a vested interest in its well-being.

In several recent Monitor immigration editorials, we have repeatedly expressed our gratitude to National Guard troops for coming and serving here. But we also understand the hardships this has put on their families and their employers while they serve. Allowing permanent DPS officers to fill these positions would relieve guardsmen and ensure that we will have adequate and appropriate forces to combat human trafficking, smuggling and illegal drugs that cross the Rio Grande.

More than 700 peace officers already have applied for the fast-tracked trooper posts to the Rio Grande Valley. Candidates must be licensed Texas peace officers with at least two years patrol experience. Starting salaries range from $54,128 to $71,422.

Last week, Abbott promised that if lawmakers find a way to fund his program then the following will also be added: more Aerostat aerial surveillance devices; ground cameras; river patrol boats; airplane surveillance; and high-tech border equipment.

Again, in our editorials we have earmarked deficiencies with current equipment and infrastructure for agents and have stressed the importance of improving working conditions for officers, which would, in turn, make for safer communities for our Valley citizens.

We agree with the governor when he said: "We can and we must be more efficient and effective in processes to secure our border. The challenge is immense but Texas is up to the challenge."

Throughout our state's history, Texans have always found a way to do the seemingly impossible and we have faith in our lawmakers in Austin that they will do right by our region on this important issue during this Legislature.

We also agree with the governor that Texas should not bear this burden solely on the backs of its taxpayers. And we look, once again, to Washington and to President Barack Obama to do what's right and to help our state fund the added security costs.

As this has become an issue that lawmakers nationwide all seem to have an interest in and opinion on — this includes Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, likely thought to be a 2016 GOP presidential contender, who last week toured the border with Abbott — so must the rest of the nation also accept the financial responsibilities of added security to our nation's borders. And so must our nation realize that it is necessary to keep our peace officers, and all citizens safe.

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