Texas is one of only six states which treat 17-year olds as adults under criminal law. (New York just raised theirs for most offenses.) But 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 takes effect in 2018, at which time adult jails must separate 17-year olds by “sight and sound” from older inmates. Texas needs to change the law before then. Representative Harold Duttonhas filed HB 676 raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, as it is under federal law and in 43 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 dangerous offenders 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. And anyway, adult jails lock up defendants for petty crimes which in the juvenile system typically result in probation in 98.7 percent of cases. 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 looming 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. Juveniles are treated in a separate, “civil” system and their criminal records are considered private. By contrast, records for 17-year olds are public, like for all adult criminal cases, 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
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. Most offenses by 17 year olds, however, are relatively minor, with low-level theft and marijuana possession the most common charges against them.
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?
Arrests of 17-year-olds have been dropping for years, with 46,173 arrested in 2008 and 22,065 arrested in 2015. So now is a good time to make the switch while crime is low and the volume is more manageable than in the past.
In the juvenile system, 17-year olds would have access to education and substance abuse programs unavailable on the adult side. That would reduce recidivism and improve their future opportunities and likelihood of success. Outcomes for 17-year-olds would also improve if youth were kept out of local jails, which lack appropriate programs and struggle to meet federal standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act to separate 17-year-olds from older offenders without isolating them.
How to fix the problem
The federal government and most states already treat 17-year olds as juveniles when it comes to criminal law and Texas should follow their lead.
While there would be a short-term cost associated with the change, in the medium to long run it would save money and reduce crime.
Texas should let kids be kids and not prosecute them as adults until their 18th birthday, just like in most of the rest of the country. Indeed, most Texans already think that’s the case. HB 122 would simply make the law conform to that longstanding public pwerception.