Children at Risk Internship Provides Meaningful Public Service Experience

February 14, 2012 | By Allyson Kucera, J.D. Class of 2012

My internship at Children at Risk this summer provided excellent preparation for my career in public service as well as an understanding and appreciation of the intense legal and public policy battles fought for children in Houston and across the State of Texas. Children at Risk is a non-profit organization that advocates for children through the influencing of public policy.  Its areas of concentration include health, human trafficking, juvenile justice, food insecurity and education. As an intern this summer, I co-authored a paper on the State of Juvenile Justice in Texas. The publication focused on three areas: 1) Juvenile Mental Heath, 2) Adult Certification and 3) The Texas Youth Commission. Through this project, I had the opportunity to assist in crafting the public policy recommendations on this subject for Children at Risk to be advocated in the upcoming legislative session.

The internship consisted of site visits, staff meetings, continuing legal education, research and writing.  We began the summer by visiting several agencies in which children interface with the legal system, including the Youthful Offender Program (YOP) where they house the juveniles certified as adults, Giddings State School, the juvenile prison, Texas Children’s Hospital, Harris and Dallas County Juvenile Detention Centers, etc. The site visits both provided insight for my own research project and taught me about the other research areas of my organization.  At each site we were met by staff members who were enthusiastic about the missions of both Children at Risk and their own program and who thoroughly answered our questions, enabling us to gain significant insight into the goals and setbacks of each site. The visits were particularly helpful for my understanding of the various areas of impact of Children at Risk, as my time in research and writing focused only on the area of juvenile justice.  In addition, the site visits to YOP and Giddings significantly impacted my research paper.

At each staff meeting and continuing legal education seminar, we had an opportunity to learn about and conduct other legal research affecting children in Houston.  These meetings also significantly broadened my view of the mission of Children at Risk and enabled me to understand its partnerships with other organizations.  In addition, in the staff meetings we received excellent feedback about our research that aided in my development as a legal writer. I also had the opportunity to meet and work with outstanding law students from around the country, as we worked to compile the publication.

Although the site visits, legal education and staff meetings shaped my view of Children at Risk and contributed greatly to my development as an attorney, the majority of my time was spent in legal research and writing.  The paper reviewed the status of adult certification in Texas, comparing the rates of adult certification by county, race and offense.  Not surprisingly, African American and Hispanic juveniles are more commonly certified as adults, as are those who commit more violent offenses; however, an interesting finding of my research was that rates of adult certification vary somewhat randomly by county across Texas.  Our policy recommendations, therefore, included a provision of a set of guidelines to determine who may be certified.

Our research also detailed the opportunities for education and rehabilitation in the facilities in which a juvenile can be held after a felony conviction.  The capacity for rehabilitation is shaped by everything from the architectural design of the institution to state funding to training of the staff and is clearly manifested by the exceedingly low recidivism rate of teens who remain in juvenile court and carry out their sentences at Giddings State School, as compared to those who are certified as adults and spend time at the Youthful Offender Program.  My position in this paper was to increase the rate of determinate sentencing, in which juveniles are held in a rehabilitative environment in TYC but may be transferred to the adult prison if their behavior is not reformed and may be eligible for parole upon completion of the TYC program.  This paper will be submitted for publication and hopefully will have an impact on juvenile justice in Texas and will give each offender an opportunity for rehabilitation and reincorporation into society after completion of his sentence.

“Ally’s research during the summer provided much needed clarification on the usage of the judicial waiver process in Texas. Her detailed statistics and thorough analysis showed the inconsistent application of adult certification on minority youth, thus highlighting the need for continued advocacy efforts on this issue. The publication Ally co-authored will serve as a resource for judges, attorneys, public officials, and key stakeholders in juvenile justice reform in the State of Texas.” – Dawn Lew, Staff Attorney, Children at Risk

Mission Statement: Children at Risk improves the quality of life for children across Texas through strategic research, public policy analysis, education, collaboration and advocacy. For more information, go to www.childrenatrisk.org.

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