This commentary appeared in the Austin American-Statesman. At 10:30 am. on March 25th, the House Criminal Jurisprudence is holding a hearing on the classification of 17 year-olds.
Believe it or not, in Texas, every 17-year-old who shoplifts a Snickers bar, breaks a window or commits any foolish misdemeanor is considered an adult in the criminal justice system. We treat these teens like adult offenders, while troubled preteens as young as 10 years old can land in the juvenile justice system, hugging teddy bears and holding the hands of the officers.
Following a series of juvenile justice reforms in others states, Texas is one of a handful remaining with this disturbing approach to classifying "juveniles.” Fortunately, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee is meeting tomorrow to discuss the classification of 17-year-olds. As Texas works to extend its successful reforms to the juvenile justice system, it’s time to shift the age range for who is considered a juvenile from the current 10-16 years old bracket to a more appropriate 13-17 years old age range.
In nearly every other facet of life, we consider adulthood to start somewhere between ages 18 and 25. Seventeen-year-olds can’t vote. They require parental consent to join the military. The U.S. Supreme Court considers Americans to be minors until age 18. The drinking age is 21. Texas continues to provide certain foster care services to young people until they turn 23.
The reason for treating 17-year-olds as children is obvious, even if you don’t know the scientific research showing that the part of the brain responsible for making good judgments is still developing at that age. You can probably just remember back to some of the knucklehead decisions you or your friends made as high school juniors and seniors.
While 17-year-olds are prone to make mistakes, they are rarely serious offenses. Criminal justice data show that most charges against them are for nonviolent offenses and misdemeanors. If we move them to the juvenile system, the vast majority of 17-year-old offenders would end up on probation rather than behind bars, just as they do now in the adult system.
Although 17-year-olds are still maturing, when they commit crimes we need to hold them accountable and help them straighten out. The juvenile justice system is the best place to do that. In the rare cases of violent and serious offenses, the state can still confine them in the juvenile system, where appropriate rehabilitation and education programs are also available. On the other hand, high school students in the adult system don’t always have access to the appropriate education and rehabilitative services they need to avoid heading towards a life of crime.
Besides providing needed services, the juvenile system also allows most youth to keep their records from following them to adulthood, ensuring their youthful mistakes don’t hinder their chances of landing a job or finding safe housing.
Young offenders in adult jails and prisons, surrounded by experienced criminals and cut off from the educational services they need, are more likely to commit additional crimes in the future compared to similar youth who land in juvenile facilities. Sadly, sexual and physical assault, as well as suicide, are more common when youth are sent to adult jails and prisons instead of juvenile facilities. The result is more crime, higher criminal justice costs for taxpayers, and broken lives.
Just as 17-year-olds shouldn’t be placed with hardened adult prisoners, preteens should be kept out of a system designed for teenage offenders.
True, juvenile facilities are not overflowing with 10-year-olds. The ones who end up there have often committed violent or sexual offenses. But when elementary school students engage in that behavior, it means they were almost certainly a victim of physical, sexual and emotional abuse first, and it is often the child’s family and our society that have committed the real offense.
These kids need intensive help, not handcuffs. Like 9-year-olds in similar situations, these preteens need the support of the child welfare system, not the hammer of the juvenile justice system. For the youngest kids who make mistakes, the Department of Family Protective Services can refer them to appropriate services, just as the juvenile justice system currently does, but the agency can do so in a way that avoids the stigma of the justice system. It can also investigate suspected cases of abuse and neglect.
Let’s reduce crime, save money and give children an opportunity to straighten out by shifting the juvenile justice age bracket to 13 to 17 years old.
Lauren Rose is the juvenile justice policy associate at Texans Care For Children.