For 95 years, Texas criminal law has considered 17-year-olds as adults who, if they commit a crime, are directed into an adult prison system that is not capable of providing for their unique needs.
At least that is the feeling of some experts who testified in Austin this week before the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which is investigating whether the adult age should be raised to 18, the age at which one is allowed to vote, serve on juries, buy cigarettes and enlist in the military.
A report presented to the committee by Michele Deitch of the LBJ School of Public Affairs listed many advantages to changing the law and placing 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, which has an emphasis on rehabilitation, education and treatment, rather than in adult facilities, whose major focus is punishment.
The report points out that juveniles are developmentally different from adults; youth in the adult system experience high rates of physical and sexual assault, suicide and mental deterioration; and youth placed in the juvenile system are often better served and re-offend at lower rates.
Deitch, who notes that the majority of 17-year-olds arrested in Texas were charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes, told the committee that teens in the adult system are 36 times more likely to commit suicide and 34 percent more likely to be rearrested for a felony than those who stayed in the juvenile justice system, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
While juvenile justice officials say a change in the law would significantly increase their case loads and taxpayer expenditures for arrests, courts, probation and detention, Deitch’s report says costs would be offset by savings in the adult corrections and probation system, as well as a reduction in recidivism rates.
Forty states already have 18 as the adult age in criminal justice, and several others are considering making the change. The American Bar Association considers 18 the appropriate cutoff between juvenile and adult court jurisdiction, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines “child” as a human below the age 18, Deitch’s report says.
This change is overdue and should be high on the agenda for next year’s legislative session.