After studying this issue for several years and speaking with criminal justice experts, I have concluded that this is an important issue that needs correcting in order to salvage young lives and increase the size of Texas’ workforce.
Texas is one of the few states that automatically places 17-year-olds into the adult criminal justice system. That means those offenders are housed with adult criminals when they are awaiting trial and sent to adult prisons if they are convicted.
That is a system designed to punish and not designed to prepare young offenders for the rest of their lives after prison.
For some, it only prepares them for a future in and out of prison and relegates them to a life of never being able to provide for themselves and their families.
Offenders under 17 enter the juvenile system, where they are housed with people closer to their own age until trial and, if convicted, enter a juvenile system that is geared toward rehabilitation.
While we could always do more, the current juvenile system helps prepare young people for life outside of the system, so that they are productive members of society once they are released.
The vast majority of states reserve the adult criminal justice system for legal adults over age 18, and it is time for Texas to join them.
We have seen that one-size-fits-all justice policy doesn’t work.
Not all 17-year-olds should end up in the adult system; however, there are situations when some 17-year-olds should be handled in the adult system. Those cases include multiple repeat offenders and persons who commit violent crimes.
In the event that the crime committed by a 17-year-old is worthy of being tried and punished as an adult, that could still happen.
A judge would be able to certify that offender as an adult and move forward with legal proceedings.
That way, we are looking at individual cases and not just putting all 17-year-olds in the adult system no matter what crime with which they are charged.
There are many reasons why this is the right thing to do in Texas.
Young offenders who go through the juvenile justice system have the opportunity to get education and job training services while in the system, and when they get out their records are sealed.
That makes it easier for them to become a productive and employed member of society, greatly reducing the chance that they will reoffend and end up in the adult system in the future.
Offenders who end up in the adult system have limited access to those kinds of services. When they get out, they are often worse off than when they went in.
Their records are not sealed, making it much harder to find jobs and housing.
Without adequate education and job training and limited possibilities of finding a job or a place to live, the chances that they stay out of trouble are not good.
The recidivism rate is far higher for someone coming out of the adult system compared to the juvenile system, simply because of the way the systems are designed.
Raising the age that a teenaged offender enters the adult criminal justice system makes good sense for the future of our children and the fiscal future of Texas.
It is something that should pass in 2017 to improve our criminal justice system.
Gary Gibson is chairman-elect of the Texas Association of Business.