Age bill wins OK in House

Jus­tice sys­tem switch would try 17-year-olds as ju­ve­niles, not adults

The Dallas Morning News - - STATE - By BRANDI GRIS­SOM Austin Bureau bgris­som@dal­las­ Twit­ter: @brandi­gris­som

AUSTIN — The Texas House on Thurs­day voted to change a nearly cen­tury-old law that treats 17-year-olds as adults in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and in­crease the age of crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity to 18.

Texas is one of only six states that treat 17-year-olds as adults in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. The cur­rent law was adopted in 1918, when law­mak­ers in­creased the age of re­spon­si­bil­ity from 8 to 17. The bill by Houston Demo­cratic Rep. Harold Dut­ton, ap­proved on a vote of 83-53, would end that prac­tice. Any­one younger than 18 would be treated as a ju­ve­nile, a move ju­ve­nile jus­tice ad­vo­cates say would pro­duce bet­ter re­sults for youths and the state.

“Send­ing 17-year-olds to the adult sys­tem in­creases the like­li­hood we will be less safe as a com­mu­nity,” Dut­ton said.

But crit­ics of the leg­is­la­tion wor­ried about a large es­ti­mated price tag. The Leg­isla­tive Bud­get Board es­ti­mated it would cost lo­cal ju­ve­nile jus­tice de­part­ments statewide about $35 mil­lion per year to deal with the in­creased num­ber of youths en­ter­ing that sys­tem.

“Shouldn’t we know the hard cost for the coun­ties be­fore we do this?” asked Rep. Dustin Bur­rows, RLub­bock.

Dut­ton, how­ever, called the cost is­sue a “red her­ring.” He said other states that have in­creased the age of re­spon­si­bil­ity to 18 have not ex­pe­ri­enced in­creased costs.

Ad­vo­cates of rais­ing the age ar­gue that 17-year-olds’ brains are less well-de­vel­oped than those of adults and that 17-year-olds are more likely to suc­cess­fully com­plete re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams and avoid fu­ture crim­i­nal be­hav­ior if they are sent to the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem.

“There is no ju­ve­nile pro­fes­sional in this state who doesn’t ac­cept the fact that 17-year-olds have bet­ter out­comes in the ju­ve­nile sys­tem than they do in the adult sys­tem,” Dut­ton said.

A group of ju­ve­nile jus­tice ad­vo­cates re­leased a study last week that an­a­lyzed statewide ar­rest data, com­par­ing the types of crimes that 17-year-olds com­mit with the types that 16- and 18-year-olds com­mit.

Ac­cord­ing to the study, ar­rests of 17-year-olds have dropped since 2008, fall­ing by 17 per­cent from 2013 to 2015. The drop in ar­rests for 16-year-olds has been even steeper, 26 per­cent dur­ing the same pe­riod.

The group at­trib­uted the steeper drop in younger of­fenses to the state’s in­creased em­pha­sis on treat­ment for mi­nors in the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem. Al­low­ing 17-yearolds to en­ter that sys­tem in­stead of the adult sys­tem, which fo­cuses less on re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and treat­ment, could re­sult in an even steeper crime drop, they con­tend.

Rep. By­ron Cook, R-Cor­si­cana, asked law­mak­ers to con­sider an ex­am­ple he ex­pe­ri­enced of two ju­ve­niles who com­mit­ted the same crime; one was 16, the other 17. Both were charged in a hot-check writ­ing in­ci­dent. The 16-year-old went with­out con­se­quences. The 17year-old pleaded to a felony to avoid prison time.

More than a decade later, Cook said, that young man is now 31 and has a wife and fam­ily that he strug­gles to sup­port be­cause he can’t find a job.

“He’s got that felony wrapped around his neck,” Cook said. “It is an eco­nomic death sen­tence.”

Ad­vo­cates also ar­gue that treat­ing 17-year-olds as adults cre­ates a fi­nan­cial bur­den for lo­cal jails, be­cause the fed­eral Prison Rape Elim­i­na­tion Act forces jail of­fi­cials to keep in­mates who are younger than 18 in sep­a­rate fa­cil­i­ties from adults. Sher­iffs must ei­ther ren­o­vate their jails to keep younger in­mates sep­a­rated or risk be­ing sued.

While keep­ing youths sep­a­rated pro­tects them from po­ten­tial vic­tim­iza­tion by older in­mates, it of­ten leaves them iso­lated. And stud­ies show that mi­nors in prison are 36 times more likely to com­mit sui­cide than are mi­nors in ju­ve­nile fa­cil­i­ties.

Un­der the bill, ju­ve­niles charged with heinous crimes could still be cer­ti­fied by a judge to stand trial as an adult.

The mea­sure, though, faces a steep climb in the Texas Se­nate. The pow­er­ful chair­man of the Se­nate Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Com­mit­tee, John Whit­mire, DHous­ton, has not looked fa­vor­ably on the mea­sure in pre­vi­ous leg­isla­tive ses­sions.

On Thurs­day, Whit­mire said he was “con­cep­tu­ally” open to the bill but was con­cerned about the po­ten­tial cost and what he called the lack of a plan to pay it.

“You can’t just ar­bi­trar­ily change the age with­out hav­ing a plan,” he said.

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