Raise the Age!
Support HB 344: 17 year olds are not grown!
Texas is one of only four states which treat 17-year olds as adults under criminal law. Young inmates are at risk of isolation, abuse, or worse when they’re locked up in adult county jails. Plus, the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act now requires Texas counties to separate 17-year olds by “sight and sound” from older inmates or lose federal dollars. Texas needs to change the law. Representative Harold Dutton has filed HB 344 to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, as it is under federal law and in 45 other states.
Bi-partisan coalition for reform
The following organizations support this proposal: Texas PTA, Texans Care for Children, Texas Home School Coalition, the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Empower Texans, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Faith in Texas, Texas Appleseed, Texans for Accountable Government (TAG), ACLU of Texas, Austin Justice Coalition, and Just Liberty.
In short: Stop prosecuting 17-year olds as adults
Making 18 the age of adult responsibility solves several problems:
– protects young people from abuse in jail;
– keeps 17-year olds from having life-long felony records because of a youthful mistake;
– allows county jails to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act;
– still allows truly dangerous youth to be certified as adults.
Make the law conform to public’s understanding
Most Texans don’t know that 17-year olds aren’t juveniles under state law, and only find out if their high-school junior son is arrested and taken to jail. Seventeen year olds cannot yet vote, purchase tobacco, or join the military without parental consent. But for purposes of sending them to jail or prison, Texas treats them as adults. That’s not right
Juvenile crime and incarceration in Texas have been declining for at least a decade, so the system has capacity available to handle 17-year olds locally. Offenses by 16 year olds in the juvenile system typically result in probation and the same will be true about 17 year olds. So we’re talking about relatively small numbers of additional juvenile inmates in the end.
Youth at risk
Seventeen year olds housed in county jails are at greater risk of suicide and may be threatened or abused by older inmates. Most recently, in Fort Bend County a young man named Emmanuel Akeuir hanged himself after spending several weeks in the adult county lockup. If this law were already in place, he would never have been locked up in the adult jail and would likely be alive today.
In large part because of the implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, states which hadn’t yet raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 have been doing so. Six states have made the change in recent years, including South Carolina and Louisiana in 2016.
Texas should follow suit.
Big problem for young people
On any given day, about 3,000 17-year olds are locked up in Texas county jails statewide. 16-year olds and younger kids are treated in a separate, “civil” system and their criminal records are considered private. Records for 17-year olds are public, meaning youthful mistakes can create a record for high-school juniors still living with their parents which can follow them around for a lifetime.
Seventeen year olds are too immature to navigate the adult justice system. When asked why they committed an offense, most say “I don’t know.” Science has discovered that teenage brains are still growing, have yet to fully develop impulse control, and that youthful brains don’t complete their development until their owners are in their 20s. Some researchers have argued that, for those reasons, the age of criminal responsibility should be even higher, but at a minimum it should increase to 18.
Still protected against dangerous offenders
Most offenses by 17 year olds are relatively minor, with low-level theft and marijuana possession the most common charges against them. Seventeen year olds who prosecutors and judges believe pose a more serious threat could still be “certified as an adult,” which allows them to be tried and sentenced in adult courts. In 2015, 115 juveniles were so certified, though if this law passed, inevitably more would be.
Moving 17 year olds into the juvenile system would enhance public safety because juveniles receive more treatment and rehabilitative services than offenders in the adult system, take into account adolescent development, and keep the family involved in the process. All those things make it more likely they won’t continue to commit crimes as adults. The US Centers for Disease Control found that 17-year olds are about 34 percent more likely to re-offend if they’re prosecuted in the adult system as opposed to on the juvenile side. That translates into less crime and fewer victims in the long run. And isn’t that the point of the justice system?