Most 17-year-olds are in high school. Their parents still ground them, and they have to ask to borrow the car. Besides being able to get into R-rated movies, they possess the same adolescent freedom as 16-year-olds. Yet, in Texas, 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults and housed in adult correctional facilities.
The overwhelming majority of 17-year-olds are convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors. Regardless of the charge, however, these youthful offenders are lumped in with older, hardened criminals. Under this structure, Texas remains one of only six states adjudicating youth under the age of 18 as adults. But that could change this legislative session.
The Texas House recently passed House Bill 122, commonly referred to as the “raise the age” legislation. HB 122 would raise the age of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction in Texas from 16 to 17. In effect, most 17-year-olds would be prosecuted as juveniles rather than adults. Importantly, the raise the age bill would not alter the process of certification. Youth aged 14 and older charged with felonies could still be charged in the adult system at a judge’s discretion.
The state does not recognize 17-year-olds as adults for the majority of legal purposes, including buying cigarettes, enlisting in the military, and signing a contract. When it comes to criminal sanctions, however, Texas considers these otherwise juveniles to be adults.
In fact, law enforcement does not even have a duty to notify parents if their 17-year-old is picked up. The legal anomaly is evident, and trying a junior in high school as an adult is counterintuitive to most people.
Unfortunately, the greatest hurdle to raising the age is the expected costs of implementation. This is a valid concern, especially in the current fiscal climate. It costs more to adjudicate an offender in the juvenile system rather than the adult system. Some reasons for this include the greater availability of rehabilitative programs in the juvenile justice system, and the fact that juvenile probation officers more closely monitor offenders.
However, a better system produces better outcomes.
Studies uniformly show youth processed through the as adults are more likely to recidivate compared to similarly situated youth placed in the juvenile system. In other words, a 17-year-old is less likely to commit another crime and more likely to get back on the straight and narrow if he or she is punished in the juvenile justice system.
Young people are particularly prone to reforming behavior, and the upfront costs of the juvenile system is a prudent investment for public safety.
This is why Texas lawmakers should raise the age of criminal responsibility.
While youthful offenders should not go unpunished, they should be punished in the most appropriate venue that produces the best results for Texans. “Raising the age” would require additional resources, but, it is not uncommon for government entities to overestimate costs of enacting policies. For example, Illinois and Massachusetts avoided a spike in taxpayer costs while lowering juvenile crime. Additionally, Illinois managed to close three juvenile correctional facilities and reallocate resources accordingly.
In the last decade, Texas has been at the forefront of criminal justice reform by employing evidence-based policies built on conservative principles. While these efforts have been paramount to lowering crime rates and enhancing public safety, they are not exhaustive. There remains work to be done.
Raising the age would enhance public safety by lowering recidivism rates among youthful offenders. It is a common sense policy that takes advantage of the benefits the juvenile justice system has to offer, including greater family involvement and individualized treatment.
It is a prudent investment, offering the best return on taxpayer dollars for Texans and their children.
Raising the age would lower recidivism rates, create safer communities, and better equip youthful offenders to redirect their lives to become productive citizens.
Haley Holik is a policy analyst for the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.