Proposed bills would fix adolescent imprisonment

Claire Smith

One week ago, the Legislature’s Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Subcommittee heard three bills that propose to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in criminal cases from from 17 to 18. Though the bills propose what appears to be a minor change, the debate over HB 53, 303 and 1205 is anything but a non-issue. Should the bills pass, they will herald a promising new day in Texas with the abolition of a nonsense law and the end to an institutional failure of Texas youth.

Texas is one of only nine states that try 17-year-olds as adults. The argument for doing so is that if they are able to make decisions like adults, such as whether or not to commit a crime, they should face adult consequences. 

Yet the issue is not as black-and-white as this rationale suggests. In fact, most of the crimes committed by 17-year-olds don’t seem to be “adult” crimes at all: According to a recent study by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the crimes of 17-year-olds are much more similar in nature to those of 16-year-olds than they are to the acts of 18-year-old criminals. Many of the youths that the state prosecutes as adults literally committed the crimes of children. And as we all know, children make mistakes.

Also, in an interim report released by the committee, it was found that 44 percent of the crimes committed by 17-year-olds were larceny, the possession of marijuana or certain alcohol-related crimes; in other words, nonviolent crime. A University of Texas study found that if the state changed the age of juvenile jurisdiction, 72.5 percent of 17-year-olds arrested would be misdemeanants and 89.9 percent of the crimes could be resolved with non-residential probation. When placed in a greater scope, the difference in treatment between juvenile court and adult court is staggering. These nonviolent, minor offenses are exactly the kind of harmless trouble I believe many would expect from teenagers, yet the state prosecutes these misdemeanants in adult courts. 

Unfortunately, in some 17-year-olds’ cases, being tried as an adult for the aforementioned offenses eliminates the possibility of having the charge expunged from their record at the age of 21. For minors, this is possible after the completion of an alcohol education course or community service. There is no doubt that this will negatively impact the success of the minor’s college application process or job search — in short, any attempt to better themselves. But this is the way the law stands now, and we must call it as it is: an institutional failure.

The most disturbing shade of this issue is that the state may be imprisoning Texas youths in state prisons partially for financial benefit. According to the subcommittee report, it costs $50.04 per day to incarcerate a person at a state prison and $366.88 per day to incarcerate someone at a juvenile detention center. As representatives from the Texas Probation Association said as they testified before the subcommittee,  the financial aspect of this issue cannot be overlooked; should HB 53, 303 and 1205 pass, the date of implementation for the transfer of 17-year-olds from state prisons to juvenile institutions will likely have to be delayed due to greater detention costs to the state.

Those who have strayed at 17 belong in juvenile correctional facilities, not a state prison. The committee’s interim report stated that reassigning 17-year-olds to the juvenile criminal system would have more favorable results. The trial and imprisonment of 17-year-olds as adults has concrete disadvantages: In state prisons, 17-year-olds are unable to continue their education; they are unable to receive mental health counseling that the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice found 70 percent of imprisoned 17-year-olds need; and they are ineligible for the state’s Substance Abuse Felony Punishment program or Intermediate Sanction Facility beds. All of these problems would be resolved if 17-year-olds were placed in juvenile correction facilities instead. It could not be clearer that prison is not comparable to rehabilitation.

What we should be doing is empowering the youths who commit criminal activity to be treated as youths, rehabilitated and reintroduced into a society where they are empowered to succeed. Seventeen-year-olds stand at a critical point in their life, on a threshold between childhood and adulthood, where society expects them to live as contributors to society. It is illogical enough that the state is currently trying 17-year-olds with the full penalties of adulthood at such a tender age and for mostly misdemeanors.

We cannot undo the failures of others, but we can make sure our state does not continue to fail our youths. Adolescent imprisonment is a disservice to Texas youths and a grave condemnation that will alter the course of their lives — all for a mistake they made when they were 17.

Smith is a history and humanities junior from Austin. Follow Smith on Twitter @claireseysmith.