Age bill wins OK in House
Justice system switch would try 17-year-olds as juveniles, not adults
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.