In Texas, every 17-year-old who commits a crime is considered an adult in the criminal justice system, no matter how minor the offense. High school-aged teenagers who cannot legally vote or buy cigarettes are prosecuted in adult courtrooms in Texas, held in adult jails, sentenced to adult probation or prison, and left with criminal records that can follow them for a lifetime. As evidence mounts that youth under 18 have poorer outcomes in the adult system, Texas is considering policy changes to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, while maintaining the option of charging them as adults when it is deemed necessary.
In the past several years, five states concluded that children under 18 belong in the juvenile justice system, and passed legislation to raise their ages of jurisdiction. There are just eight other states besides Texas who consider all 17-year-olds to be adults, and at least four of these are considering legislation that would move 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system. This trend reflects growing consensus among experts, practitioners, and legislators that children do not belong in adult courtrooms, adult jails, and adult prisons, and that they are more likely to be successful and less likely to recidivate if offered the juvenile justice system’s age-appropriate interventions. Particularly with new Prison Rape Elimination Act standards in place to keep 17-year-olds safe in adult jails and prisons, some communities are finding the cost to taxpayers to be further reason to reconsider the practice of treating all 17-year-olds as adults; one Texas sheriff estimated it cost her county nearly $80,000 per week to keep 17-year-olds safe in adult jail.