Juvenile justice advocates want age of adulthood raised to 18

Juvenile justice advocates say 17 is too young; critics disagree

By Lauren McGaughy
Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — In Texas, you have to be 21 to apply for a concealed handgun permit, and, in many cities, 18 to buy an e-cigarette. In the eyes of the criminal justice system, however, you are considered an adult at age 17, a nearly century-old law juvenile justice advocates and law enforcement increasingly agree is out of step with national norms.

Texas is one of only nine states with an age of adulthood under 18. The cutoff long has raised the hackles of advocates who say 17-year-olds are not mature enough to be tried, sentenced and incarcerated alongside adults. Now, some agreement is coalescing around the idea of upping the age to 18 as Texas seeks to comply with newly instituted federal standards for jails and prisons.

"We support it," Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia recently said. Four lawmakers already have filed bills ahead of the 2015 session to up the adulthood age to 18. "We'll all be challenged by it, but I think we're smart enough to deal with that."

Support from influential law enforcement officials like Garcia and Guadalupe Valdez, his counterpart in Dallas County, would be key to ensuring the success of the effort during the 2015 session. Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the issue is garnering attention from all corners.

"Initially brought to us by local researchers, sheriffs have asked us to prioritize the issue of removing kids from their jails," Yáñez-Correa said. "Their jails are no place for kids, but they have no other option but take them in."

Price tag, conditions

There are multiple reasons why 17-year-olds should not be incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system, according to University of Texas professor Michele Deitch.

Youths under the age of 18 endure higher rates of physical and sexual abuse in adult jails and prisons, and are 36 times more likely to commit suicide, according to Deitch. And while Texas' juvenile justice system continues to turn itself around after years of scandal, she said it can provide youthful offenders with the educational and behavioral programs necessary for a developing mind.

Even as the effort to raise the age gathers support, its price tag and worries over conditions at Texas' juvenile facilities could be its downfall.

Speaking to the Chronicle recently, Sheriffs' Association of Texas President A.J. "Andy" Louderback said much of the financial burden would fall on counties, where many sheriffs would be tasked with constructing new or additional juvenile facilities.

"Eighty percent of the counties in Texas don't have juvenile holding facilities," Louderback said, including Jackson County, where he is the sheriff. "This is not a minor thing. It would affect a lot of counties financially."

Louderback said the association has not decided whether to support boosting the adulthood age. He said in addition to cost, he is concerned the state's juvenile department would not have the ability to handle an influx of 17-year-olds who already have spent time in the adult system.

Harris County Assistant District Attorney Justin Wood agreed, saying, "We would definitely want to be assured that TJJD (the Texas Juvenile Justice Department) could handle the addition of these 17-year-olds to the system.

"In the last several years, they have really downsized the number of facilities, I think with the goal of increasing the security of those facilities, but that has not translated," he added. "They've been disastrous in some locations."

Lawmakers demanded a security inspection at all five state-run juvenile centers in late March after an audit report showed staff at Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg left cell doors open so inmates could fight one another.

Whitmire says 17 is old enough

Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, said he disagrees with advocates that 17-year-olds should be pushed back into the juvenile justice system.

"I think at 17 you should know right from wrong," said Whitmire, who added he does not think it "realistic" that a bill to increase the age to 18 will pass this session.

Calling the Juvenile Justice Department "dysfunctional" and "broken," Whitmire said lawmakers should be focused on fixing the agency instead of funneling potentially violent adults into compromised facilities with children.

Yáñez-Correa said she understands concerns related to cost. Her group is proposing legislation to gradually phase in the move over the next several years to give counties leeway to figure out how to deal with any additional financial burdens, allow the Legislature to appropriate more state funds and hand the state additional time to ensure it complies with new federal regulations under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

"The deadline is 2017 to get everything done," Yáñez-Correa said of the federal legislation. "We feel like if we pass the bill this session, provide that time period so that jurisdictions can get together and work it out, it would be smooth sailing in 2017."

Protecting incarcerated youths

The federal regulations require jails and prisons to institute reforms aimed at reducing rape rates, including separating those under 18 from the adult prison population and barring searches of male inmates by female guards. Gov. Rick Perry made clear Texas would not comply with the standards when the first of the mandates kicked in earlier this year.

"Obviously this issue keeps us from being compliant," said Sheriff Garcia, whose office said about 117 17-year-olds are jailed in one of the county's two adult facilities on any given day. "We would like to be compliant, but we need assistance from all of our stakeholders."

By August, Texas will be expected to implement the cross-gender pat-down restrictions; by 2017, new minimum staffing requirements for juvenile facilities will go into effect.

Bucking these mandates would open up state and county law enforcement officials to litigation - one inmate already has sued Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, citing the federal law - and could mean the loss of millions in federal dollars. Texas has received more than $3.5 million in federal funds to implement the standards.

Wood said his office has not decided whether to support the effort but added it is not a matter of whether the age of adulthood would increase, but when: "It's definitely a trend I see becoming a reality, whether it be this session or next session."

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