If you are seventeen years old in the state of Texas, you may not be able to vote, join the military, or buy a beer or a pack of cigarettes, but you’ll probably be treated as an adult if you are charged with a crime in this state. In January, approximately two hundred people rallied at the Texas Capitol building in Austin to have seventeen-year-olds treated as juveniles by the Texas criminal justice system.

The students, parents, and activists at the rally were organized by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition in support of House Bill 676, a proposal that would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 in this state. The measure has been introduced in the Texas Legislature by State Representative Gene Wu of Houston, who told the rally, “As legislators, we have to remember that we live in the real world. We live in a world where children act like children, and we shouldn’t expect them to be adults when we treat them as children for everything else.”

Supporters of House Bill 676 say that placing 17-year-olds in lockups with adults can push juveniles toward a life of crime. A 1978 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that youths in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youths in juvenile detention facilities. And according to the Department of Justice, youths in adult facilities are also more likely to be sexually assaulted than those in juvenile detention.

WHAT GROUPS ARE SUPPORTING HOUSE BILL 676?

Many Texans now believe that referral to the juvenile justice system is a much better alternative for 17-year-olds. Passage of House Bill 676 is a top priority for advocates of juvenile justice in Texas in 2017. They say that the policy of placing juveniles in custody with adults harms not only the young people, but all of us with its high social and economic cost. House Bill 676 is supported by the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the Texas PTA.

A similar legislative proposal failed to become the law in Texas back in 2015. The costs of transferring so many 17-year-olds from one system into another were considered too high by opponents of the legislation, including Senator John Whitmore of Houston, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. This year, supporters of House Bill 676 will argue that the proposal is both a money-saver and a measure that increases the safety of the general public.

Elizabeth Henneke, an attorney who works with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, cites the recent case of Emmanuel Akueir, a 17-year-old who apparently hanged himself in the Fort Bend County Jail. Henneke told the Texas Tribune, “If we had passed this last session, that 17-year-old would not have been in that facility. So we’re talking lives here.” She adds, “If you want to talk about costs, ask his parents about costs.”

HOW DO OTHER STATES HANDLE TEENS CHARGED WITH CRIMES?

When criminal charges are filed in Texas and in six other states, 17-year-olds are usually charged as adults. In New York and North Carolina, even 16-year-olds are charged as adults. Teenagers who receive adult criminal convictions inevitably face barriers to resuming their educations, finding employment, and accessing social and community services and resources. In 2007, research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that placing juveniles in the adult justice system makes it substantially more likely that they will commit crimes as adults.

As defined by Texas law, a juvenile is someone who is at least age 10 but not yet age 17. Legal status as a juvenile or adult is determined by the youth’s age when the alleged crime transpired. But Texas law also provides that when the charge is a serious crime, a 15-year-old or a 16-year-old may be prosecuted as an adult. In these cases, it’s imperative for parents to work with a seasoned juvenile defense attorney. The juvenile justice system in Texas uses a variety of penalties, punishments, and alternatives. The juvenile courts call these sentencing options “disposition orders,” and a full sentence may include one or more of these penalties:

  • verbal warnings
  • restitution and fines
  • rehabilitation or counseling
  • probation
  • community service
  • house arrest with or without electronic monitoring
  • placement with a guardian, group home, or foster home
  • placement in a juvenile detention facility
  • for more serious crimes, placement in a secured juvenile facility, county jail, or state prison

However, if a teenager is innocent and has not committed the crime being charged, none of the above alternatives are right, and parents will need aggressive, high-quality legal help from an experienced Dallas juvenile defense attorney. If you are a parent, nothing is more important than your child’s future. Whenever a juvenile – whether innocent or not – is charged with a crime in Texas, parents should arrange to consult with an experienced Dallas juvenile defense attorney who routinely represents teenagers accused of crimes.

DOES HOUSE BILL 676 ALLOW FOR ANY EXCEPTIONS?

Overwhelmingly, most 17-year-olds who are arrested in Texas – 96 percent, in fact – are charged with misdemeanor or non-violent offenses. However, for the most serious crimes, House Bill 676 would still allow judges to certify 17-year-olds for prosecution as adults. Appropriate legal treatment for 17-year-olds, however, is not the only concern of Texas juvenile justice advocates in 2017.

Activists are also asking Texas lawmakers to change the law that permits children as young as age 10 to be arrested and placed in the juvenile justice system. Dr. Terry Smith, the executive director and chief probation officer for the Dallas County Juvenile Department, recently explained to state lawmakers that young children should not be treated as offenders. “They don’t have the developmental capacity,” she explained. “Their brains aren’t developed. Well, how can we not apply that to 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds?”

At the same hearing of the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee late last year, Lauren Rose, the director of youth justice policy at Texans Care for Children, an Austin-based nonprofit group, testified that 10- to 13-year-olds should not be placed in the juvenile justice system but should instead be directed to other, more appropriate community and child care agencies. The 84th Texas Legislature is already in session, so we’ll soon know the fate of House Bill 676 and the other legislative proposals for changing the Texas juvenile justice system.