House Panel Mulls Increasing Juvenile Criminal Age to 18

Texas lawmakers are considering changing the state's definition of who is considered an adult in the criminal justice system, and even some who disagree with parts of the proposals say the policy should be changed.

Since 1918, Texas law has classified 17-year-olds charged with crime as adults. Instead of entering the therapy-rich juvenile system, the teens are imprisoned in adult facilities designed to punish criminals.

There were 514 such teens admitted to adult correction facilities in fiscal year 2014, according to the state's Legislative Budget Board.

At a committee hearing Wednesday, lobbyist Ray Allen with the Texas Probation Association said, "These kinds of changes are badly needed."

But, he said, affected agencies should have more time -- until early 2017 -- to comply.

The bills were left pending.

Regardless of whether they are passed out of the committee and full House, efforts to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction will likely be stymied by Democratic Sen. John Whitmire, who oversees criminal justice issues in that chamber.

Whitmire's committee this week passed his proposal that would drastically change Texas' juvenile justice system by housing youths in facilities closer to their homes.

He has said that he's "very much opposed" to raising the age and has refused to have a hearing for Senate bills to raise the age, saying he's concerned about how it will affect the state's juvenile system.

Allen agreed, saying Whitmire's proposal is "a large policy change" of which the impacts remain unknown.

Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., one of the bills' authors and the committee chair, said "consequences will be far more dire" if the law isn't changed soon.

Currently, Texas is one of nine states that treat youths younger than 18 as adults. While juvenile criminal records are often sealed, adult records aren't, making it difficult to find employment and housing.

Advocates say that moving 17-year-olds to the juvenile system could cost the state more initially -- $76 million in fiscal years 2016-2017, according to the Legislative Budget Board -- it would save the state money in the long run in reduced recidivism rates.

It costs about $50 per day to incarcerate an adult, compared to $367 for a juvenile. Probation is also pricier, at $3 a day for adults compared to $22 a day for juveniles.

But doing nothing could also be expensive.

Without a law change, county jails may need costly renovations to comply with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires youths to be separated by "sight and sound" from inmates 18 and older by October 2017. County facilities that don't comply with the act are prohibited from entering into state or federal contracts.

Texas' state facilities don't comply with the act and the state is already being docked. The Legislative Budget Board estimates Texas stands to lose $2.78 million in federal funding in 2016-2017.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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