Coalition pushes to keep Texas 17-year-olds out of adult jails

(AP Photo/Federal Bureau of Prisons)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In Texas, 17-year-olds are tried as adults, but one coalition says new data collected shows 17 is too young.

The Raise the Age Coalition is working to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Texas from 17 to 18. The group says research shows that 17-year-olds are arrested for non-violent, low-level offenses that closely resemble those of 16-year-olds rather than older youth or adults.

Raise the Age examines arrests, jail bookings and case outcomes for Texas 17-year-olds from 2012 to 2015, the last four years for which complete data were available. It finds a strong similarity in the types of offenses committed by 16- and 17-year-olds.

The top five offenses leading to arrest for both age groups are:

Age 16: theft (20.2 percent), misdemeanor assault (13.7 percent), drug possession (12.5 percent), runaway (9.9 percent), curfew and loitering violations (5.6 percent)

Age 17: theft (20.8 percent), drug possession (19.1 percent), misdemeanor assault (10.8 percent), drunkenness (3.7 percent), liquor law violations (3.4 percent)

Among arrests for drug offenses, arrests for possession of marijuana were by far the most common among 17-year-olds statewide, representing 14.4 percent of all arrests of 17-year-olds and 75.5 percent of drug possession arrests.

Despite similar actions by 16- and 17-year-olds, the data analysis from Raise the Age finds that the two age groups receive dramatically different treatment. 17-year-olds who are locked up with adults experience higher rates of depression, suicide and physical and sexual victimization.

“Research shows many of the programs most effective in reducing re-offending require parental involvement,” says Marc Levin, Policy Director of Right on Crime. “We are pleased that ‘raise the age’ legislation has already passed out of committee in the House and are confident that this groundbreaking report will further persuade Texas lawmakers that this step must be taken to strengthen families and lower crime.”

Critics argue the bill to change the age comes at a price. In order to care for 17-year-olds, some counties may have to add capacity to their civil courts and increase their juvenile probation and services staff.

Texas is one of just seven states that automatically send 17-year-olds accused of a crime into the adult, rather than juvenile, criminal justice system.

Three bills have been filed this legislative session that would change the age of criminal responsibility to 18: House Bill 122 by state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, HB 676 by state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston and Dutton’s HB 1015.

In March, the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee voted to approve HB 122.

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