Youth in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department's Phoenix Program
Youth in the McLennan County Juvenile Detention Center, photographed in September 2012. (Patrick Michels)

House Hears Broad Support for Bringing 17-Year-Olds into Juvenile System


Patrick Michels

Miguel Moll went before the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues yesterday to tell the story of his introduction to the Harris County Jail. He was 17, he told lawmakers, when he was caught joyriding in a stolen car and brought to the Harris County Jail. He heard the threats from other inmates as soon as he walked in: “I got him, I have this one, I got this one.”

Much younger, and much smaller than many of the men he was locked up with, he said he simply wasn’t prepared for what he faced.

“So now I have a decision to make,” he said. “Am I going to bow down, am I going to submit? Or am I going to be a beast just like them?”

Moll’s story was one of a few powerful testimonials lawmakers heard yesterday as they considered bills to move 17-year-olds from the adult criminal justice system to the juvenile system.

Demetrius Greer of Waco told lawmakers he spent three years in the Texas Youth Commission before serving seven in an adult prison. “Those three years affected me a lot more than the prison time because I was a lot more mentally prepared,” he said. “If I would have went directly from the streets to prison, I believe that I would be more barbaric.”

Stories like theirs are why a number of criminal justice groups and child advocates have been pushing hard in recent years to bring Texas in line with federal law, and 41 other states, and raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Young inmates are more likely than grown-ups to be victimized in adult lockups, and 17-year-olds are still young enough to benefit from the rehabilitation and support the juvenile system provides.

“In recent years, overwhelmingly, data has indicated that it is counterproductive to send these juveniles to adult prison. Keeping them in the juvenile justice system offers them better behavioral outcomes,” Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) explained to the committee.

McClendon, along with Houston Democrats Gene Wu and Harold Dutton, all presented bills yesterday that would act on this research and “raise the age” in Texas. Judges would still have discretion to certify some 17-year-olds as adults, but the 96 percent of them arrested for nonviolent crimes could be handled in the juvenile system, a place built to treat and rehabilitate rather than punish and segregate.

The juvenile system is also more expensive, and an estimate released just ahead of the hearing showed an annual cost of around $60 million annually to the state, plus millions more for many counties, to handle the additional 17-year-olds.

Wu said it may even be a conservative estimate, but a cost worth taking on now, while the arrest rate for 17-year-olds is falling. “It’s going to be a question for the Legislature of what is our priority,” he said.

Advocates noted that the cost estimate didn’t consider the benefits of treatment that could prevent young people from re-offending. Not changing the law comes at a high cost as well: to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, counties will have to retrofit their jails to keep 17-year-olds separate from adult inmates. A Dallas County official testified yesterday that they’ve dedicated entire floors of the jail to 17-year-old boys and girls, taking up precious space.

Those long-term cost savings are one of the reasons the proposal has support from the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation as well. “We can pay for this once and we can pay for it up front, or we can pay for it two, three, four times down the road,” TPPF analyst Derek Cohen told the committee. But Cohen said the case for raising the age goes beyond money. It’s clear, he said, that most 17-year-olds simply don’t belong in the adult system. “It’s about using the best particular tool for the job,” he said.

Committee members, Republicans and Democrats alike, sounded enthusiastic about the idea yesterday. And House members have already conducted an interim study, released in January, that recommended making the change. There seems to be near consensus in the House that the reform should go through—but should the House pass the measure, it would likely set up a conflict with the Senate.

There, the bill would face a major roadblock as long as Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, remains opposed to the change. Whitmire has said his opposition is partly philosophical—the line between juvenile and adult must be drawn somewhere, and he believes current law gets it right. But he has also voiced concern about opening an unsteady juvenile system, which is already in the midst of massive reforms, to a new and difficult population.

Ray Allen with the Texas Probation Association, the lobby group for probation officers, raised that concern at yesterday’s committee. “There’s a great deal of discussion about reform within [Texas Juvenile Justice Department] secure facilities,” he said. “We believe that adding a second reform effort can lead to unintended consequences.”

Allen and county juvenile probation officials also worry the law wouldn’t give them time to adjust (Wu’s bill sets a September 2016 deadline for the change), and wonder whether the state would cover their up-front costs. Lauren Rose of Texans Care for Children, who has studied the impact of making the change, said there’s no reason to wait. “The system can definitely handle it,” she said. “The change happens slowly. It’s a very slow trickle of juveniles in the system.”

Michele Deitch, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs who has studied a path to implementing the change, said that it wouldn’t endanger juvenile justice reform that’s already being done in Texas. The move, she said, would be “entirely consistent” with recent trends.

Deitch noted that the 1918 law that made 17 the age of criminal responsibility was a “raise the age” initiative of its own; until then, children as young as 13 were considered adults.

Society has changed since then, reflected state Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Spring), and perhaps it’s time the law reflected that.

Late in the hearing, Elizabeth Henneke of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reflected on the meeting’s tone. She’d heard practical concerns about making the law work, she said, but only agreement on its premise. “Not a single person has come up here and said 17-year-olds should not be treated as kids.”