Proposed bill would raise the age of criminal responsibility in Texas

SAN ANTONIO -- In Texas, 17-year-olds are tried as adults, but many experts say 17 is too young.

House Bill 676 proposed by State Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) would raise the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18.

Supporters say it will give hundreds of thousands of young people who committed a nonviolent crime a second chance.

“At 18 you can be drafted in the military, you can buy a lottery ticket, you can vote, but at 17 you’re not able to do those things,” said Texas PTA President Lisa Holbrook. “Those are adult actions and adult decisions so why would we make an exception in that area when these are still teenagers?”

The Texas PTA is just one organization pushing to raise the age of mandatory prosecution as an adult.

“Texas is one of 7 states that still try juveniles as if they were adults,” said Holbrook.

Holbrook points out that in the juvenile system, parents have input in the situation, whereas when they're adults they have no knowledge.

“The other piece is the confidentiality system. If they're tried as adults their records are available to the public, whereas if they’re tried in the juvenile system their records are sealed,” said Holbrook. “That gives them the opportunity to truly have that rehabilitative experience.”

“The adult system's really not made for 17-year-olds,” said Bexar County Juvenile Probation Chief Probation Officer Lynne Wilkerson.

Wilkerson says most 17-year-olds arrested in Bexar County have committed nonviolent offenses.

“We know that 17-year-olds are very similar to 16 year olds,” she said. “In fact, we looked at a snap shot of 17-year-olds arrested in Bexar County and looked at the offenses, and they look very much like the offenses we see 16-year-olds commit.”

Wilkerson says once they are placed in an adult facility, teens are far more likely to go to jail again.

However, the state will need to figure out how to manage the cost to allow more teens into the juvenile system.

“There will be about a 30% increase in cases with 17-year-olds coming in over a period of time,” said Wilkerson. “There will be some challenges, but it's worth it.”

In 2015, the legislature commissioned a report that found it costs about $50 a day to incarcerate an adult.

Whereas it costs more than $350 to house a youth.

However, the report points out that generally, juveniles have shorter sentences resulting in lower costs overall.

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