In Texas, 17-year-olds can’t vote, serve on a jury, play lotto, or buy beer and cigarettes – but they are considered adults when they get in trouble with the law. Some Texas lawmakers are hoping to change that. House Bill 122, which would raise the age of criminal responsibility in Texas from age 17 to 18, was approved by the Texas House this week on a vote of 92-52, moving it another step forward in the legislative process. The bill now goes to a Senate committee, where a companion bill already sits, and then possibly on to the full Senate.
While there are still big hurdles to cross, raise-the-age reform remains a top issue for juvenile justice advocates and criminal justice experts who want to bring Texas in line with most other states. Currently, Texas is only one of seven states that regularly prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system.
Many Texans are surprised to learn that the age of criminal responsibility is 17 – and unfortunately, most find it out the hard way when their kid makes a poor decision. Right now, a 17-year-old high school student in Texas who gets caught shoplifting at the mall would be taken to adult jail, prosecuted as an adult and possibly end up with an adult criminal record. Meanwhile, his 16-year-old partner-in-crime would be handled by the juvenile system and offered rehabilitative services for the same offense.
House Bill 122 by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, seeks to close that disparity by raising the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18. In other words, anyone age 17 or under would be considered a juvenile in the justice system. The bill, however, still allows judges to certify juveniles who commit violent crimes to stand trial as an adult under Section 54.02 of the Family Code.
Supporters of the bill point to the fact that 17-year-olds are considered minors in all other aspects of society and that locking them up with adults can jeopardize their safety and push them further toward a life of crime. They contend that raising the age would create better long-term outcomes and better conform with national juvenile justice trends.
Not to mention, supporters say local lockups will not have work so hard to try and comply with federal law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which bars inmates under the age of 18 from being within “sight or sound” of older inmates in an effort to protect them from sexual assault.
Meanwhile, critics of raising the age of responsibility argue that the current system is the best approach and that changing the law would come with a hefty price tag. Counties would have to find room for an influx of 17-year-old offenders and increase their juvenile probation and services staff.
The law that charges 17-year-olds as adults has been on the books since 1918. The push for raise-the-age reform began years ago and the issue was debated in the 2015 legislative session but failed. Supporters vowed to keep fighting and the issue re-emerged during the 85 Legislative session with seemingly more momentum.
And while House Bill 122 showed promise by recently clearing the House, it could be stymied by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who oversees criminal justice matters and has said that he is opposed to raising the age of criminal responsibility.
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