Editorials

Criminal justice needs age adjustment

THE EDITORIAL BOARD

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Should a 17-year-old who is arrested for a crime be automatically be classified as an adult?

It might not seem like a big issue. One year isn’t that big of a difference. How much can a teenager change from one year to the next? Does it really change anything?

Yes. It really does.

A Texas 17-year-old isn’t considered an adult anywhere but the criminal system, which creates an institutional problem. We treat them like kids, but when they get arrested for a crime, that goes out the window.

A scared teenager who might have done something like petty theft or drug possession now gets thrown into an adult jail. These crimes are serious, but the repercussions of putting kids in this situation can be more so.

Even with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, kids can fall prey to jail violence. Also, suicides happen frequently in jails.

In 2015, more than 22,000 17-year-olds were arrested in Texas. Most received probation, says one House Research Organization report. Only 46 were inmates in the state’s criminal justice system as of August 2016.

Violent or serious offenders can still be tried as an adult regardless of the age of responsibility.

That means most of those 22,000 kids were put in potentially unsafe environments and have open criminal records for no better reason than a law says they can’t be tried as a juvenile.

Lawmakers want to change this. They tried in 2015 but it didn’t get far. Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, filed HB 676 this year to raise the age of responsibility to 18.

His bill should be seen as a priority in the herculean task of criminal justice reform. It would allow kids a true second chance and start eradicating recidivism.

Some critics are worried about the impact of an influx of 17-year-olds entering the juvenile system and the cost it would incur.

There might be some growing pains in the transition, but dealing with a short-term discomfort will allow for a better long-term solution.

Probation is better than jail for both taxpayers and inmates. The state spent more than $2.5 billion housing felons the last two years.

Criminal justice reform should be aggressively pursued this session.

Raising the age of responsibility would be a good place to start.

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