This policy memo is written to urge you, Texas state legislator, to pass legislation that changes the Texas age of adult criminal responsibility from 17 years old to 21. Research suggests that 17-year-old brains struggle to make sound decisions because they are still underdeveloped. Thus, one mistake made at 17 should not define one’s entire life, especially considering the plethora of external factors that might have led to one’s error (e.g. mental illness, obligation, and coercion). Treating 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system makes them more vulnerable by removing their parents from the legal process, isolating them from people their age, and making them more susceptible to violence and abuse in adult facilities.
Under current Texas law, once a child turns 17 they are automatically tried as an adult by the criminal legal system. For years, activists and legislators have attempted to pass bills to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Texas; in the past few legislative sessions, these bills have gotten far, but none have officially been signed into law. We need your help to get this policy enacted. As a state legislator, you have a duty to all of your constituents. Children who have committed a wrong still deserve to have someone advocate for them. Locking these kids up is not beneficial for their well-being; it is failing them. Raising the age of criminal responsibility in Texas will ensure that these children are met with rehabilitative services rather than punishment. A child is more likely to be rehabilitated in a juvenile detention center rather than in an adult jail because the goal of juvie is geared more towards rehabilitation than prisons are. While it is still not a guarantee, kids have a better chance of being helped and set up for success in juvie than they would in a center for adults.
To be sure, the issue is not that 17-year-olds are put through the adult criminal system, it is that they are automatically treated this way without any consideration for the specific crime they committed or the circumstances surrounding the crime. In raising the age of criminal responsibility in Texas, 17-year-olds can still be tried as adults at the judge’s discretion because some extreme cases do call for a punitive response rather than an empathetic one. In fact, “95% of 17-year-old arrests in Texas are for nonviolent and misdemeanor crimes.” These are kids who need compassion and redirection, not to be punished as adults.
17-year-olds should not be held criminally responsible for decisions their brains are not developed enough to fully grasp
At 17 years old, the brain is still not fully developed yet. Children are more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, seek immediate gratification, and are able to recognize risk, but have difficulty heeding it. Thus, the decisions 17-year-olds make are not representative of who they are but the way their brain still functions. These kids can still have the opportunity for rehabilitation with the proper services and resources instead of being thrown in a jail cell with adults much older than them. The state of Texas is aware of 17-year-olds’ difficulty in making good decisions as one cannot vote, play the lottery, serve in the military, consume alcohol, or buy tobacco products at that age. Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 21 would better align with Texas law and demonstrate the state’s sophisticated understanding of the nuances of brain development.
In the Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama, the court found that imposing a life-without-parole sentence on a 14-year-old was cruel and unusual punishment. Judge Kagan wrote in her opinion, “given all that we have said in … this decision about children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” The court acknowledged that children are less responsible for their decisions and have a greater ability to learn from their mistakes compared to adults. The developmental difference between 14- and 17-year-olds is slight, and thus, 17-year-olds should not be treated the same as adults in the eyes of the law.
One mistake made at 17 should not define the rest of your life
In Texas, juvenile records are restricted and sealed, meaning kids can easily move on from the mistakes made in childhood. 17-year-olds are not given this grace when they are automatically tried as adults. Adult criminal records are much more visible and will hinder a person’s ability to get an education, start a career, find housing, etc. In many applications you have to check a box indicating that you have a criminal record. Arrests and convictions will also show up in background checks. Someone’s entire life could be wrecked because of one mistake they made when they were 17. Considering the evidence mentioned above asserting that children have a great ability to change and grow, leaving them with such a permanent mark is harsh and unnecessary.
70% of incarcerated youth have experienced a traumatic event
Automatically putting 17-year-olds through the adult criminal legal system responds to their mistakes with punitiveness instead of understanding and awareness of other factors that likely led to their crimes (e.g. untreated mental illness, poverty, and absent parent(s)). The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that “65-70% [of youth in Texas prisons] have at least one diagnosable mental health disorder, 70% have experienced a traumatic event, 30% have a diagnosed learning disability, [and] 48% function below their academic grade level.” Many of these kids are not committing crimes because they are vile or immoral, but because they are distressed and neglected. The education system, their family, and society have failed these kids enough already. When they get into legal trouble, they need guidance and support rather than penalty. The court system could signal a child’s last chance to learn the skills they need to be a contributing and quality member of society.
Incarcerated youth in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide
Treating these already vulnerable 17-year-olds as adults puts them in an even more vulnerable position. For one, their parents have a diminished role in the process (e.g., they are not notified when their child is arrested, nor is their presence required for interrogation). In this already scary and overwhelming process, the children are now even more isolated and unsupported. Similarly, in the facilities themselves, they are not surrounded by people their own age which can make them feel alone and could lead to intense symptoms of mental illness. Being a kid in an adult facility also makes 17-year-olds more susceptible to unwanted attention from guards and fellow inmates. “Incarcerated youth in adult facilities are 5 times more likely to become sexually assaulted, 50% more likely to be attacked by a weapon, and 36 times more likely to commit suicide.” To combat this, jail staff might put 17-year-olds in solitary confinement keeping them in one cell for 23 hours a day. Solitary confinement is harmful for most people, but its effects on a still-developing brain could be catastrophic. The way to protect these kids and justly discipline them is to keep them in the juvenile justice system.
I recommend that the Texas legislature pass a bill to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility in Texas from 17 years old to 21. The 17-year-olds currently in adult prisons will be moved into juvenile facilities. 17-year-olds would be treated their age throughout the entire process (arrest, interrogation, trial, sentencing, etc.). Judges still have discretion to move a case out of family court should the circumstances be severe enough.
While 21 might seem like an arbitrary number, it is important to remember the gradual growth process that takes place as we progress into adulthood. By 21, one has had more responsibility and independent adult experience. There have now been several times where one has had to make decisions without their family. Critical development takes place towards learning and understanding accountability and morality. Some might argue that the brain is still not done maturing, but by 21, one definitely understands the basics of law and consequences. Ultimately, there will never be a perfect number because everyone’s life experiences and brains are different. For example, a kid might know better at 15 than an adult knows at 24. The goal, however, is to enact laws that are best for society and serve the majority.
Many bills have tried to address this issue, but none of them have passed. If you do not vote for this policy change in the 88th Session of the Texas Legislature, who knows when it will be enacted. If this change is not put into place, more and more 17-year-olds will be hurt by the system that was supposed to help them. “Texas is one of only three states left that automatically treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal legal system.” With your help, we could join the other 47 states that recognize that 17-year-olds are still kids, empowering the state to protect its youth.
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