Should Texas change law to keep 17-year-olds out of adult jails?

Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) speaks at the State Capitol about juvenile justice reform. (KXAN Photo/Steffi Lee)
Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) speaks at the State Capitol about juvenile justice reform. (KXAN Photo/Steffi Lee)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition wants lawmakers to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 in the 2019 legislative session.

The ACLU of Texas, Texans Care for Children, Texas PTA, Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas joined the coalition during a press conference inside the State Capitol Friday. State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, is also pressing for this change.

“Back in 2013 when I was first elected, Texas was one of 12 states left that had not raised the age,” Wu said. “By 2015, we were one of nine states left. As of the session in 2017, we were one of seven states. By the end of the session, we were beaten by New York and became one of six states and now, one of five states.”

A non-partisan study from 2015 suggested Texas could be a model for improving juvenile justice systems nationwide. The report, compiled by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said Texas’ statistics for reducing the number of juveniles jailed in state facilities and youth crime rates dropped sharply together.

Lauren Rose with Texans Care for Children said if Texas wants to remain a leader on juvenile justice reform, raising the age needs to happen. But the work can’t stop there.

“We need to work with our mental health system, we need to work with our schools and the child welfare system to make sure they can provide the support these youth need,” she said.

Critics in the past have said passing this type of legislation would be an expensive move for counties, saying they would have to add space and staff for their civil courts and juvenile probation services.

Kyle Ward with the Texas PTA said many 17-year-olds are often arrested for non-violent offenses.

“Legally, 17-year-olds cannot vote, consent to medical treatment, rent an apartment or live independent of their parents without permission, but in the criminal justice system, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “Your 17-year-old is treated the same as a 30-year-old or 40-year-old adult with a criminal record.”

There were three bills filed in the 2017 legislative session that would’ve changed the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Wu vows this will remain a top priority for the 2019 legislative session.

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