Committee hears bills to increase criminal responsibility age from 17 to 18

Eleanor Dearman

Under Texas’ current legal system, 17-year-olds accused of crimes are usually tried as adults — but lawmakers are working to raise that age by one year.

On Wednesday, the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues subcommittee heard three bills that would raise the age at which youth are tried as adults to 18. The bills were left pending in committee.

Texas is one of nine states that places 17-year-olds in the criminal justice system rather than the juvenile justice system, according to Rep. Ruth McLendon (D-San Antonio), who was a juvenile probations officer for 17 years before she was elected to office.

“From my observations, one thing is clear, and that is a juvenile may be large enough and tall enough and strong enough to look and talk an adult, but there is no assurance that they have the maturity or intellectual growth to evaluate consequences and the ability to make decisions in the same manner as we expect from adults,” McLendon said.

Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) said he supports a change in the age of criminal responsibility because minors are being tried as adults for relatively small, nonviolent crimes.

According to an interim report released by the committee, 44 percent of 17-year-olds arrested in 2013 were charged with larceny, the possession of marijuana or for consumption or possession of liquor.

“Your chances of going to school, getting a job, getting licensed — heck, even finding an apartment — [are] greatly damaged,” Wu said.

A recent study conducted at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs found offenses committed by 17-year-olds were more aligned with crimes committed by 16-year-olds than crimes committed by adults.

“[17-year-olds] are typically arrested for nonviolent, minor offenses,” said Michele Deitch, the study’s author and LBJ senior lecturer, at the hearing. “Patterns of offenses and arrests really mirror that of the 16-year-olds, with slightly more drinking and drug offenses, which you would probably expect.”

Ray Allen testified at the hearing on behalf of the Texas Probation Association. He said while the Association supports a change in the criminal responsibility age, the change should not be immediate. Allen said there are concerns about the costs and time counties would need to implement the change.

“We absolutely do not oppose the policy change,” Allen said. “Our concerns … are focused almost entirely on the length of time we believe is necessary to make this change take place.”

It costs $50.04 per day to incarcerate a person at a state prison, compared to $366.88 per day to incarcerate someone at a juvenile detention center, according to the committee’s report. The report also found that 17-year-olds made up three percent of all adult arrests in 2013.

Neurobiology junior Kate Dembny said since 17-year olds are generally not considered adults, they should not be tried as adults.

“Seventeen-year-olds don’t get any other rights, so being tried as an adult is inherently unfair,” Dembny said.