Road to Raising the Age

Michele Deitch has been talking about prison reform for more than 30 years. She’s an attorney and professor at the University of Texas schools of law and public affairs where she has written and contributed to numerous reports and articles and teaches courses on corrections, sentencing, and policy. She speaks publicly on the issue including a 2014 TEDx Talk titled “Why are we trying kids as adults?”



In 2007, Michele Deitch’s focus shifted to the juvenile justice system for two reasons. First, the Texas Youth Commission, the government agency responsible for juvenile corrections, faced a number of scandals including sexual violence against inmates and a number of administrative failures across the state.¹ Around the same time, Christopher Pittman was charged with two concurrent terms of thirty years imprisonment for murdering his grandparents in South Carolina.² Pittman was just 12-years-old at the time of the incident. Michelle worked closely with his lawyers during the appeal process as they argued that children shouldn’t be subject to the death penalty or lifelong sentences without the possibility of parole. Both situations triggered nationwide conversations about reinventing the juvenile justice system into something more rehabilitative.

Deitch and her students embarked on a major study to learn what happens to children under the age of 12 who enter the adult criminal justice system.

“It was a wake up call for me,” Deitch says. She was stunned by the number of kids in the adult system.

They began to take a closer look at the issues these minors tend to face in Texas and across the nation. The research showed that a substantial portion of cases that led to minors entering the adult system were those of 17-year-olds who are automatically treated as adults.

In fact, since the 1913 Juvenile Delinquency Court Act (which created the juvenile system in Texas), 17-year-olds have been automatically tried as adults regardless of the nature of their crimes.

Deitch knew then that raising the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 would be paramount to addressing juvenile delinquency.

“If we wanted to make any difference in terms of keeping kids out of the adult system, it needed to be by raising the age of jurisdiction and saying that kids under the age of 18 should be in the juvenile system,” Deitch said.

Starting in the mid-2000’s and after 2010, states that had lowered the age of criminal responsibility to 17 began to raise it back to 18.

Deitch says, “They started to understand that kids are different from adults. Their brains aren’t fully developed; they are much less culpable for their offenses; and they’re much more susceptible to rehabilitation.”

Since then, Texas legislators have written and sponsored multiple bills which address raising the age. In fact, this legislation was considered in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, and a bill is already pre-filed for the 2021 session.

Adult Certification

Proposed raise the age legislation leaves in place the certification process by which any child (14 and up) can be moved to an adult court at the discretion of a judge. The supposed practical purpose of adult certification is to transfer teens who commit repeated or egregious crimes.

Over the years, Deitch’s research showed that even adult certification isn’t entirely fair in practice. She and her students found that kids were being transferred on their first offenses and for nonviolent crimes.

“The assumption is that we are only transferring the worst of the worst,” she said. “The assumptions didn’t match up with the reality.”

Despite issues with the way the statute on adult certification is written, Deitch believes that the tides are turning toward leniency and that judges are more cautious about who they certify.

Why Kids Don’t Belong in the Adult System

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that teens who are transferred from juvenile to adult courts are 34% more likely to be re-arrested for violent or other offenses than youth who are kept in the juvenile system.³

“They have enormously greater risk of suicide and of being physically or sexually assaulted in the adult system,” Deitch says. “They aren’t getting access to programs or services on the level that they would be on the juvenile side.”

Additionally, when 17-year-olds enter the adult system, their parents don’t have the right to be involved in the court process. In fact, law enforcement is not even required to inform parents of their arrest.

The vast majority of offenders aren’t going to prison, though. In 2018, about 78% of arrests of 17-year-olds were for nonviolent crimes which often result in probation. Deitch believes that the rules often included in adult probation can be extremely challenging for a teen to follow and raise much higher barriers to entering college and the workforce.

“They’re not going to have the range of programs and services they would have on juvenile probation,” Deitch said.

The Best Solution

Deitch would like to see the age of criminal responsibility raised to 18 and additional funding be added to support juvenile probation programs in the state.

If raise the age legislation passes, an influx of 17-year-olds will impact juvenile courts and probation systems. Deitch believes the courts need specialized programs for this population.

“Their needs are different from that of a 12 or 13-year-old.”

For those in doubt, Deitch says, “Its important for families to understand that raise the age doesn’t change transfer laws.” As with kids over 14, any 17-year-old who commits a truly heinous crime can be transferred to the adult system at the discretion of the court.

With so many teens committing minor crimes and offending for the first time, she believes this legislation will help reduce the number of kids entering and staying in the system.

“It’s basically stupid teens doing stupid teen stuff. And if they go into the adult system, it has a lifelong impact on them.”

What Now?

State Representative Gene Wu (District 137 in southwest Houston) has sponsored a pre-filed bill (House Bill 486) to be considered in the Texas House.

HB 486 (and most other similar bills) would raise the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18. If passed, the bill would become an act taking effect on September 1, 2021.

Raise the age is one of Texas PTA’s legislative priorities for the 87th Texas Legislature. To learn more visit

¹Highly recommended reading:
²Previous cases had begun to set precedent that kids are principally different from adults and shouldn’t be held to mandatory life sentences for crimes committed while they are children. More information on South Carolina vs Pittman:
³Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Effects on Violence of Laws and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Youth from the Juvenile to the Adult Justice System: A Report on Recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventative Services.

A Conversation on Diversity with Sheri Doss

Sheri Doss is Texas PTA’s first black president since the merger of the white and colored congresses. She stands exactly five feet, one inch tall, speaks quietly but matter-of-factly, and juggles all things with grace. She worked in the telecommunications industry before embarking on her PTA leadership journey. With 18 years of PTA experience, Sheri has seen it all. We sat down in the conference room at the Texas PTA State Office for a conversation on diversity.

This Q+A has been condensed for brevity.

Magen: Looking back, we can see the level of influence PTA members had on schools, communities, legislation, etc. The history speaks for itself in terms of how that influence was wielded in amazing and not-so-amazing ways. Talk about your perspective as the first black president of Texas PTA.

Sheri: I have been waiting for this question. To be honest, I don’t think my experience has been different from any other president’s. I don’t think that being African American has been a pro or a con to my leadership except that it sends the message that this level of leadership is open to anyone, not just one group anymore. That’s huge!

But I didn’t want that to define my term so I didn’t focus on that. I am who I am and I focus on being a good leader.

I want to leave a message that you can’t equate who is a good leader just by how they are wrapped.

Certainly, I feel extra pressure to focus on diversity and inclusion. Being thrown into this leadership role is mostly positive, but I do feel pressure to not let anybody down. I recognize how important it is—for everyone really—but especially for people who look like me to see someone that looks like them in this position.

I just try to be me and see you as you. And I will say something about diversity and I will say something about inclusion. But it’s not because I’m African American, it’s because it is the right thing to do.

In a New York Times report about funding disparities in public school districts, Sarah Mervosh wrote: “[The report] found that more than half of the nation’s schoolchildren are in racially concentrated districts, where over 75 percent of students are either white or nonwhite.” What are the ways PTAs and Councils can combat or address segregation at their schools?

One of the ways I think they can open up that channel is to celebrate the differences. When I was installed, part of my speech was about diversity and how much we’d been working on it but also about inclusion. Inclusion is about asking, who’s missing?

Your PTA board may look like the demographics of the community. True inclusion, though, would be to not stop there but to bring in all types of people, not just one-offs. Once you bring them in, learn and celebrate the differences rather than fighting the differences.

Allowing inclusion to be a thread through all that you do is the key. It’s easy to send subliminal messages that [all people] are not included and [all people] are not wanted. To the kids and to the parents who walk the halls and don’t see anyone else like them, that could be a message they aren’t welcome.

How does diversity make PTAs better?

Diversity isn’t a whisper. This is who we are. We celebrate it!

It brings more and better ideas. Each person grows as a result of exposure to those differences. It helps bring everyone together and focuses on the community to make a real difference. There’s strength in numbers. The only way to get those numbers is to pull everybody in.

In our mission, we say we work for all children. But if you only have parents from certain demographics, it doesn’t seem that way.

What are the ways you have seen PTAs promote diversity among their membership?

They have been intentional about seeking out leaders all over the district. Some tend to have leaders only in one part of the district. Bringing all different people into the fold and asking them to step-up is one way to keep them.

As you are wrapping up your term, do you have anything else to say about this diversity and inclusion conversation?

It has been a fantastic term. I haven’t experienced any discrimination that I’m aware of. I’m excited to leave a legacy of excited and engaged future leaders. They know that if we band together, we can make a huge difference. I hope I’ve sent a message that every single person has value.

History of the Colored Congresses of PTA

Texas Colored Congress

The story of the Texas Colored Congress of Parents and Teachers is a familiar one. In 1917, W.S. Benton, a Fort Worth teacher and mother, started a “mothers’ club” in her living room. Around 1910, Texas towns began to roll out strict segregation rules known as Jim Crow laws. Segregation not only impacted students and schools, but it seeped into all areas of public life – restricting the freedoms of people of color.

Public school parents of all races saw this racially charged milieu play out over the majority of the 1900s. W.S. Benton was one such parent (and teacher). Despite the odds, she was committed to making the most out of family engagement and its role in childhood development.

Within a year, Benton gained favor in Fort Worth and, with the blessing of principals and the superintendent, formed a mothers’ club in each public school. As this “council” formed, she rose to become its first president. By 1920, Benton went on to organize associations in five other cities including Dallas and Port Arthur. The efforts of these PTAs helped build schools, form curriculum, buy books, and spread goodwill throughout the state.

On November 24, 1920, each club was asked to send delegates to a meeting of the minds. This meeting marked the beginning of the Texas Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers.

Over the next ten years, the congress would double then triple in size with Marshall, Waco, and Houston joining its ranks.

National Colored Congress

Selena Sloan Butler was a natural leader. When her son Henry enrolled at Yonge Street Elementary School in Thomasville, Georgia, Butler formed the school’s first PTA. In 1919, Butler wrote to the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (NPTA) to inquire about the work of PTA at the national level. Beginning at this time and over the course of 20 or so years, many state congresses formed (with Georgia at the helm and led by Butler). On February 11, 1928, the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers (NCCPT) officially established.

Fast forward through wars, the Great Depression, and a couple decades of racial tension, and in 1954, Brown vs Board of Education brought an end to segregation in public schools … at least in theory. An especially bizarre scheme to slow the progress of desegregation is recounted in a fact-finding report from the National Education Association on Desegregation in Mississippi, as follows:

“In [one school] belles to signal class changes ring at different times for black and white students so that even walking through the halls is segregated. The white teachers and pupils in one “desegregated” school are housed in two rooms at one end of the building. The two white teachers, with a total of six white pupils in their classrooms, have no contact with the black principal.” They continue, “At a supposedly desegregated high school, the 40 cheerleaders are white. When one black co-ed sought to become a cheerleader, she was told to come back after she had raised $80.”

Amid substantial tensions in 1970, National PTA and NCCPT leaders called for a merger of the two organizations. There had been talks for several years and both congresses believed their common goals made this the right thing to do. As the two National PTAs became one, each state was also mandated to merge with its counterpart.

Then National PTA President Pearl Price wrote, “I would be less than candid if I said all parents and teachers, black and white, welcome this unification … Our challenge now is to move above and beyond our separate, divisive experiences and build a shared experience, the experience of working together not as black persons and white persons but as human beings intent on building a society that cares deeply for all its children, whoever and wherever they are.”

This would not be the end of the struggle to achieve true racial, cultural, and administrative balance in Texas and National PTA. Over the years, substantial and intentional efforts were made to drive equality and to oust racial tensions.


Archives, Texas Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers History, 1961-1968. AR.J.014.

Education, United States Congress House Committee on Education and Labor General Subcommittee on. Emergency School Aid Act of 1970: Hearings, Ninety-First Congress, Second Session on H.R. 17846 and Related Bills. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970.

Price, Pearl B. “One for All.” The PTA Magazine, September 1970.


Why do people volunteer?

I have to be honest. I am not a volunteer. At least, I’m not a volunteer yet. I am a young, single woman with no children and no ties to public schools besides that I live and work near one. I have been employed by public school districts and now by Texas PTA but in full disclosure, they pay me to be here. In a conversation with Kelley Thomas (President of Plano ISD Council of PTAs), she told me that she volunteers not just for PTA but a number of other organizations and for nearly 60 hours per week. Forty of those hours are with PTA. I couldn’t believe it. Why work for free? Why give away your most valuable resource (time) every day FOR FREE?

The membership of Texas PTA shocks me. In my role, I often interact with our Board of Directors and other leaders. These people are what I call mega-volunteers. They take service to some kind of extreme — advocating, traveling, counseling, and meeting almost every day just to help PTA operate.

“It is an American custom to spend most of our adult lives finding ways to turn our talents into money.”

Human Capital

When you go to a job interview, the hiring party often asks two types of questions: What do you know how to do? and What kind of person are you?

This same concept could be applied to volunteerism. But in this case, it is you who hires yourself. In a 2010 article on organizational behavior, volunteering is characterized in three ways:

1.“The volunteer must seek out the opportunity to help”
2.“The volunteer arrives at a decision to help after deliberation, and
3.“The decisions about beginning to help and continuing to help are influenced by whether or not the activity fits with the volunteers’ own needs and goals” (Lavelle)

As a young parent, Kelley Thomas knew she would join a PTA but didn’t yet have any plans to be a leader. When dropping her daughter off at kindergarten, another parent considering the role of “Room Mom” said, “I’ll do it if you do it.” The rest was history.

So many PTA parents have a similar story. You think, ‘I like my kids and I like the school, so why not?’

At PTA meetings, you might have heard that they needed a Treasurer, Parliamentarian, and a Social Chair. So you asked yourself, ‘Am I the kind of person that would offer something to this PTA? Do I know how to do anything that would allow me to contribute? Do I care enough to get involved?’

If you are like the PTA volunteers I have met, you jump in headfirst employing all of your talents to help your kids, the school, teachers, and other parents.

It is an American custom to spend most of our adult lives finding ways to turn our talents into money. In fact, most of us have to. This is called Human Capital (what do I know how to do?). We pour money into education and training and then go through the heartbreaking procedure of finding work. When we get the work, then we spend our time and talents climbing the ranks (hopefully toward more money).

When you volunteer, the energy is still spent but the money goes somewhere else. So what motivates people to donate their Human Capital to an organization?

Well, it depends. Age, employment, family structure, demographics, and health are all predictors of where and how people will volunteer (Carr). For example, middle-aged people are more likely to engage heavily in community-oriented and youth-oriented volunteering. What’s more, people with children, partnered or not, are about 1.75 times more likely to engage in youth-oriented volunteering (Carr).

Social Capital

It also depends on several prosocial aspects. For example, some people join a volunteer-based organization for the socialization, the sense of community, or the service-learning opportunity (Stukas). Here’s where Social Capital comes in (what kind of person are you?).

Social Capital encompasses a much broader spectrum of skills. We all have it on some level. This could mean being purposefully influential, supportive, having numerous connections, or a great reputation. These can all be applied to pursuing a paying job and that’s why so many employers ask both of those questions ㄧ What do you know how to do? and What kind of person are you?

For people with high Social Capital, volunteering, fundraising, and leading come natural. They make fast friends, can usually convince anyone into anything, and the good ones use their personalities to help kids, raise funds, and give back.

For the most part, people with high Social Capital find ways to embrace others and be helpful … that’s why so many of them volunteer.

One study suggests that when people live in an area where the trust level is high (that is trust in the community), social capital becomes more important and volunteerism levels rise (Glanville et. al.). So depending on the community, individual Social Capital could grow as belief in the people around us grows.

It makes sense that as people have children (or come to work at or near schools), they enter into a trusting group of parents, staff, and community and Social Capital skyrockets.

In 1740, philosopher David Hume wrote, “Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both, that I should labour with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow.” This is a perfect example of Social Capital and a reference to what occurs in PTAs every day.

To apply David Hume’s words, I’ll help take care of your kid today, because I know you’ll be helping take care of my kid tomorrow. We need each other.

Two Reasons

About two-thirds of volunteers report having two or more important motives for volunteering (Clary & Snyder). One is usually human and one social. The human reason is likely the same for most. You love your kids and you care about the school they go to.

The first reason can be a little self-serving. In the early years, it might be all about my kid and my school.

Kelley says her second reason became clear to her when she participated in Texas PTA’s Emerging Leaders Academy. Through higher-level learning, she realized, “Every kid can use an advocate.” With her background in education and training, her volunteerism found a new application.

She saw the tangible ways that advocacy spreads far beyond the local level.

“[PTA] is important for all kids, not just my kid,” she said.

Why do you volunteer?

As we’ve learned, people are capable to volunteer in a number of ways. Volunteers invest in each other to transcend an individualistic culture and to make much of community trust.

So whether PTA is your only volunteer commitment or your tenth, what are your two reasons?


Carr, D. C., King, K., & Matz-Costa, C. (2015). Parent–Teacher Association, Soup Kitchen, Church, or the Local Civic Club? Life Stage Indicators of Volunteer Domain. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 80(4), 293–315.

Clary, E.G., & Snyder, M. (1999). The motivations to volunteer: Theoretical and practical considerations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8, 156-159.

Glanville, J. L., Paxton, P., & Wang, Y. (2016). Social Capital and Generosity: A Multilevel Analysis. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45(3), 526–547.

Helene Jorgensen, 2013. “Does It Pay to Volunteer? The Relationship Between Volunteer Work and Paid Work,” CEPR Reports and Issue Briefs 2013-10, Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).

Lavelle, James. (2010). What motivates OCB? Insights from the volunteerism literature. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 31. 918 – 923. 10.1002/job.644.

Stukas, Arthur & Snyder, Mark & Clary, E. (2016). Understanding and encouraging volunteerism and community involvement. The Journal of social psychology. 156. 243-255. 10.1080/00224545.2016.1153328.