Handling 17-year-old offenders

This commentary originally appeared in the El Paso Times.

When 17-year-old Texans are caught pulling a high school prank, shoplifting, or getting in more serious trouble, they are automatically considered adults and sent to the adult criminal justice system. That’s bad policy for youth and taxpayers, and momentum is building to change it.

In 2015, state legislators took their first serious shot at trying to change the law, and made a lot of progress. The House passed an amendment to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 and make the juvenile justice system the default for 17-year-olds, but ultimately the measure fell short.

Now, as the 2017 Texas legislative session gets underway, multiple lawmakers – including House Juvenile Justice and Families Issues Committee Chairman Harold Dutton and Representative Gene Wu – have filed bills to try again. Supporters are gearing up to support the legislation.

The vast majority (96 percent) of 17-year-olds arrested in Texas have committed misdemeanor or non-violent offenses. However, recognizing that there are more serious cases, the new legislation would allow judges to certify 17-year-olds as adults if deemed appropriate.

We have joined with sheriffs, judges, the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Texas PTA, and others in advocating for this approach.

Key benefits of raising the age include:

  • It would reduce crime. Youth sent to the adult criminal justice system are 34 percent more likely to be rearrested compared to youth in the juvenile system.
  • It ensures parents are contacted. In the adult system, parents are not called when youth are arrested. Nor do they have a right to be present when their child is interrogated. In other words, if the police pick up a 17-year-old at a high school party on Saturday night and take him to jail, mom and dad don’t know why he hasn’t come home.
  • It saves money. If the Legislature doesn’t raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction, sheriffs will have to spend taxpayer money retrofitting jails to keep 17-year-olds separate from older inmates and comply with rules to prevent prison rape. Additionally, the juvenile justice system provides youth with rehabilitative programming and services that reduce recidivism. By keeping youth from cycling in and out of the justice system later in life, states and communities reduce their long-term costs.
  • It prevents suicides. Youth in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide compared to youth in juvenile facilities.
  • It reduces sexual assaults. Youth are more likely to be sexually victimized in an adult facility than other populations.
  • It reduces the use of solitary confinement for 17-year-olds. Seventeen-year-olds often end up in solitary confinement, in some cases for 23 hours per day, to protect them from sexual assault. The experience leads to significant mental health challenges.
  • It gives youth a better chance of being successful citizens as they grow up. An adult criminal record makes it more difficult to attend college, get a job, rent an apartment, or join the military.

As you can see, there are significant benefits. There are a few costs, as well, involved in providing rehabilitative services to 17-year-olds in the juvenile system, and the Legislature should provide the funding for that transition.

Making the juvenile justice system the default for 17-year-olds must be a priority for legislators this year.

Lauren Rose is Director of Youth Justice Policy at Texans Care for Children.