Raise the Age: 17-Year-Olds in the Criminal Justice System

This report was produced by the Raise the Age Texas coalition, whose members include Texans Care for Children, Texas Appleseed, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Right on Crime, and the ACLU of Texas.

By Brett Merfish, Staff Attorney; Dr. Yamanda Wright, Director of Research; and Deborah Fowler, Executive Director, Texas Appleseed

Texas is one of only seven states in which 17-year- olds accused of committing crimes are automatically shuffled into the adult criminal justice system rather than the juvenile justice system, regardless of the crime. Treating 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system is out of step with the societal consensus for “maturity” as well as with research on brain development that finds youth are inherently less likely to consider the outcomes of their actions, more prone to risky behavior, and more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures.

Sending youth into the adult system has serious consequences for their mental health and physical well-being; 17-year-olds face physical and psychological risks when placed in adult prisons that lead to higher rates of suicide, depression, and physical and sexual victimization. In addition, having an adult criminal record creates future barriers to education, employment, housing, and military service. 

Seventeen-year-olds are not able to vote, serve on juries, or serve in the military, yet they are treated as adults by the criminal justice system. Moreover, the crimes 17-year-olds are arrested for and the crimes for which they’re booked in jail closely resemble the crimes for which younger juveniles in Texas are arrested and detained. In short, 17-year-olds are very much like their 16-year-old counterparts but they receive different treatment by the criminal justice system—treatment that leads to higher recidivism rates and more negative effects on their well-being. 

The following data analysis examines the arrests (including arrests by Houston-area school district police officers), jail bookings, and case outcomes for 17-year-olds in Texas over the last four years for which complete data were available (2012-2015). Unless otherwise noted, data were obtained from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), the Texas Department of Public Safety (TDPS), and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD). 

Some top-level findings of the analysis are: 

  • The majority of 17-year-olds are arrested for low-level misdemeanor offenses. 
  • Fewer 17-year-olds are being arrested each year—with a 17% decrease from 2013 to 2015. 
    • The number of arrests of 17-year-olds is closer to other juveniles than to adults or 18-year-olds. 
  • The top three offenses leading to arrests of 17-year-olds were theft (20.8% of offenses), drug possession (19.1%), and assault (10.8%). 
    • For drug offenses, 75.5% of arrests were for marijuana possession, representing 14.4% of all arrests of 17-year-olds. 
    • Of arrests of 17-year-olds by Independent School District (ISD) officers in the Houston area over an almost two-year period, 35.9% were for drug possession, mainly small amounts of marijuana. 
  • Data from a sample of counties show an annual downward trend of 17-year-olds being booked into jail; possession of marijuana (19.3%) and theft (18.1%) were the most common offenses. 
    • The offenses most commonly resulting in jail bookings for 17-year-olds varied only slightly between counties. 

These findings and the following data analysis make a compelling case for treating 17-year-olds as juveniles within the criminal justice system. The rates at which they are arrested along with the offenses for which they are booked resemble the rates and offenses for 16-year-olds; yet their different treatment leads to very different outcomes. Raising the age will ensure that 17-year- olds who are charged with a criminal offense are treated in a developmentally appropriate way.