Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Panelists say 40-year term harsh for girl, 16 in Texas

By Zahira Torres / El Paso Times
El Paso Times

Area educators, health-care professionals and lawyers gathered Saturday to discuss a decision by the county attorney's office to seek a tougher punishment for a 16-year-old El Paso girl accused of trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.
"Our correctional system is so imperfect," said Cristina Cruz-Grost, a child psychiatrist and forensic expert. "We need to come together to educate and rehabilitate people who go through the system. É To place a 16-year-old in the correctional department of Texas with up to a 40-year sentence erases the potential for rehabilitation and destroys her life."

The Ysleta district student, whose name was withheld because she is a juvenile, was allegedly caught trying to smuggle nearly 50 pounds of cocaine into the U.S. The street value of the cocaine is estimated to be between $280,000 and $700,000, officials said.

Last week, a grand jury, at the request of the county attorney's office, decided to allow the teen to be tried under the Texas Determinate Sentencing statute.

Under the statute, the juvenile faces the possibility of a sentence of up to 40 years in juvenile detention facilities and in adult prison.

In a statement released last week, County Attorney José Rodríguez said his office was hoping the decision would deter the city's ongoing problem with teenagers transporting drugs across the border.

"Proceeding under determinate sentencing statute in this case demonstrates that we will not tolerate these types of crimes, and should serve as a warning to those teens who might be tempted by the money being offered by the drug cartels," Rodríguez said.

According to statistics from the Juvenile Probation Department, eight minors have been detained at the bridge in the past seven years for carrying up to 200 grams of a controlled substance, other than marijuana. During the same period, six others have been detained for carrying more than 200 grams of a controlled substance, other than marijuana.

Panelists Saturday said the figures are not enough to prove the need for determinate sentencing.

"I have to wonder if this was politically motivated," said Samuel Schmidt, a political science professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez.

"It seems that they are not really trying to rehabilitate if they are trying to sentence a 16-year-old to 40 years in prison. Did she do something wrong? Yes. Should she be punished? Yes. But to what extent?"

Elhiu Dominguez, the county attorney's office spokesman, said that the decision to prosecute under the Texas Determinate Sentencing statute does not necessarily mean that the office is trying for a 40-year sentence.

Instead, he said, the statute allows a jury the flexibility to punish the juvenile past her 21st birthday, under provisions that include prison time, probation or parole. If a minor is prosecuted in a non-determinate sentencing case, punishment would not extend beyond the age of 21, he said.

"We simply wanted to give jurors an option for a wider sentence," Dominguez said. "Our emphasis is not on incarcerating juveniles but on rehabilitating them."

The teenager's trial, originally set for Monday, has been rescheduled for 8:30 a.m. Oct. 30 in the 65th District Court. Dominguez could not verify whether the teenager has a lawyer.

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