House Committee & Editorial Boards Urge Texas to Raise the Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction

Currently, all 17-year-olds who make a mistake, no matter how minor their offense, are considered adults in the Texas criminal justice system. A number of sheriffs, judges, and other officials are encouraging the legislature to change that policy as a way of reducing recidivism, expenses, and assaults on detained 17-year-olds.

In the last few weeks, several new voices have joined the chorus urging the legislature to "Raise the Age” of juvenile jurisdiction. First, the editorial boards for the Austin American-Statesman, Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News called on the legislature to make the change.

Here’s an excerpt from the Houston Chronicle editorial:

In Texas, you have to be 21 to apply for a concealed handgun, 18 to play the lottery and 18 to get a body piercing without a parent's consent. Yet a nearly century-old Texas law treats a 17-year-old who shoplifts an iPhone as an adult criminal. He is held with adults in jail, tried in adult criminal court, sent to adult prison if incarcerated and issued a permanent adult criminal record. In 41 other states, such a youth would enter the juvenile justice system instead…..

The adult system does not offer the education, rehabilitative services or the strict probation rules that the juvenile system uses to hold younger teenagers accountable, reduce the likelihood that they will commit future crimes and help them turn their lives around. Interventions that incorporate substance-abuse treatment into community-based services and that emphasize school continuity may be particularly well suited to reduce recidivism among 17-year-olds, according to some experts.

Most of the crimes committed by 17-year-olds are nonviolent misdemeanors.

Everyone knows that prison is often a school for crime, where hardened criminals mold young people by their example.

Then, in its new interim report, the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee from the 83rd Legislature also recommended making the juvenile system the default for 17-year-old offenders while maintaining the option to certify them as adults when deemed necessary.

The recommendation has the backing of Committee members Abel Herrero (Chair), Jeff Leach, Matt Schaefer, Lon Burnam, Terry Canales, Bryan Hughes, Joe Moody, and Steve Toth.

Here is a sample of the Committee’s findings:

  • "Like teenagers in the juvenile system, 17-year-olds are typically arrested for non-violent, relatively minor offenses.”
  • "The data show that 17-year-old offenders are similar to their 16-year old counterparts in terms of their needs, most of which go substantially unmet in the adult system.”
  • "Youth under 18 held in adult jails are also 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youth held in juvenile detention.”
  • "Youth under age 18 represent an operational and financial burden particularly for county jails in Texas.”
  • "Recent research from the Centers for Disease Control examining recidivism rates at a national level for various levels of violent and nonviolent crime found a median 34% increase in felony rearrests for youth who were transferred to the adult system.”
  • "As participants in the adult system, 17-year-olds are afforded no confidentiality during prosecution and typically cannot have their court records sealed. This exposure and resulting criminal record can disadvantage him or her for the rest of their lives, since they must disclose their criminal histories on every job application or college application.”

These editorials and the House report provide further confirmation that it’s time for the Legislature to raise the age.

More information on the issue, and the two-day meeting we convened with stakeholders to discuss how to properly design and implement the policy change, is available in our recent report on the issue.