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Criminal Justice Professor Stresses
Flexibility in Juvenile Sentencing

Phillip Lyons
Phillip Lyons

In 1995 Texas lawmakers passed legislation aimed at ensuring the consistency, uniformity and predictability of juvenile criminal sentences. The Senate Jurisprudence Committee, during this 77th interim, is looking into the effectiveness of those guidelines and will make recommendations to the 78th Legislature on how to improve them.

Phillip M. Lyons, associate professor in the college of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University who has testified before the committee, said creating a uniform system of sentencing juvenile offenders will not be easy.

The guidelines passed by the Texas legislature, also known as the Progressive Sanctions Guidelines, state that juvenile offenders should face uniform and consistent consequences and punishments that correspond to the seriousness of each offender's current offense, prior delinquent history, special treatment or training needs, and effectiveness of prior interventions.

Other guidelines say that juvenile system should balance public protection and rehabilitation while holding juvenile offenders accountable, permit flexibility in the decisions made in relation to the juvenile offender to the extent allowed by law and consider the juvenile offenders' circumstances.

Lyons, who earned his law degree and Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said when it comes down to determining sentencing, the system cannot treat and punish every individual the same. Sometimes the punishment doesn't need to fit the crime, he said. Looking at a chart to figure out the punishment for each individual according to the crime is not necessarily the thing to do.

"My testimony was to underscore the fact that you cannot simply look at the offense severity and sanction severity to see whether they match," he said. "Unlike the adult system, the juvenile system is based largely on a treatment or rehabilitation model. What adults get is almost all punishment. What juveniles get is supposed to be a mix of punishment and treatment."

In his testimony, Lyons voiced his concern on the present compliance with the guidelines. He explained that new data shows that despite the emphasis on treatment expressed in the guidelines, punishment seems to be the main focus.

"In order to know whether dispositions constitute a proper mix of punishment and treatment, we have to know what kind of treatment is needed," said Lyons. "The available data only address the former, but the statute requires consideration of both."

His testimony also dealt with the alarming number of African-American children and youth in public mental health services.

Another problem that has arisen has to do with treatment facilities. Lyons said too often juvenile offenders are sent to treatment units where they do not belong.

In his 1998 book titled "No Place to Go," Lyons and co-writers Gary Melton and Willis Spaulding dealt with the inability of some offenders to find the treatment they need locally. Instead of getting help within the community, often these juveniles must seek help from residential forms of treatment such as psychiatric hospitals.

"Sometimes it is not because their problems are that serious that they have to be locked up," said Lyons. "It's because there is no place for them to go.

"Some of these people in this field talk about a continuum of care. What they mean by that is at one end of the continuum, you've got a youth who needs to talk to a counselor an hour a week. At the other end, you have an offender who needs to be locked up 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a secure facility. Most youths fall way in the middle. The problem is we don't have all of those services developed in the middle."

Based on the testimony from Lyons and others, the Jurisprudence Committee will prepare a report, and with more research, will make a recommendation to the legislature on the changes that need to be made in the Progressive Sanctions Guidelines.

Lyons said he hopes the recommendations will involve treating the guidelines as just that instead of a list of rules.

"Those recommendations are largely going to involve around getting people to take them as guidelines and tell them, 'don't be rigid in your application of things but understand that this is just a guideline and a starting point and you should feel free to make deviations as long as its for appropriate reasons'," he said.

"We talk about discrimination as it's a bad thing. In this area discrimination is not necessarily a bad thing. We shouldn't take speeders and put them to death. We shouldn't discriminate based on inappropriate criteria, but we should discriminate based on severity of their crimes and perhaps on the basis of their treatment and rehabilitation needs."

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SHSU Media Contact: Brandon Autrey
June 4, 2002
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