Age inappropriate: Texas must recognize 17-year-olds are teens, not adults deserving of prison time.
"In Texas, you have to be 21 to apply for a concealed handgun, 18 to play the lottery and 18 to get a body piercing without a parent's consent. Yet a nearly century-old Texas law treats a 17-year-old who shoplifts an iPhone as an adult criminal. He is held with adults in jail, tried in adult criminal court, sent to adult prison if incarcerated and issued a permanent adult criminal record. In 41 other states, such a youth would enter the juvenile justice system instead.
It's not just a question of whether 17-year-olds know the difference between right and wrong. Many teens that age have achieved the basic intellectual abilities of adults. With parental consent, 17-year-olds can enlist in the U.S. military. But according to behavioral research and brain science, the process of psychosocial maturation — in other words, development of the internal governor that compels us against engaging in risky behavior — is not complete until their adult years.
Not only brain science but a slew of depressing statistics supports the common-sense notion that 17-year-olds merit different treatment than adults.
Juveniles are five times more likely to be assaulted in adult rather than in juvenile facilities, often in the first 48 hours of incarceration, according to U.S. District Judge Reginald Walton, Chairman of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.
Youths under the age of 18 are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in adult institutions, says University of Texas professor Michele Deitch. Similarly, after their release, youths incarcerated in adult facilities are more likely to struggle to get a job or housing because of their adult criminal record.
The adult system does not offer the education, rehabilitative services or the strict probation rules that the juvenile system uses to hold younger teenagers accountable, reduce the likelihood that they will commit future crimes and help them turn their lives around. Interventions that incorporate substance-abuse treatment into community-based services and that emphasize school continuity may be particularly well suited to reduce recidivism among 17-year-olds, according to some experts.
Most of the crimes committed by 17-year-olds are nonviolent misdemeanors.
Everyone knows that prison is often a school for crime, where hardened criminals mold young people by their example. It is counterproductive and cruel to impose the lifelong collateral consequences of the adult criminal system on 17-year-olds who might respond to rehabilitation.
To remedy this inequity, the Legislature should expand the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds, except where special circumstances indicate adult-level supervision is required. Problems with implementation should not excuse inaction. Lawmakers can provide counties lacking juvenile facilities with the flexibility and funding to make alternative arrangements.
Seventeen-year-olds are not children. But they aren't adults, either, and it's time Texas stops treating them as such. We shouldn't throw away the key on a life yet to be lived."
The above editorial was published in the Houston Chronicle on Jan. 8, 2015.
Houston criminal attorney George Parnham has issued a response, stating that:
“I certainly do concur with the editorial opinion about raising the age of majority to at least 18. Medical science has proven that the frontal lobe of the brain, that portion that is responsible for ‘connecting the dots’ relative to risk assessment and decision making, is not fully developed at the age of 17. Ironically, the mid-twenties is more appropriate. A 17 year old who takes a car belonging to someone else does that act in all probability for the thrill of “joy riding.” Should that same car be taken by a 30 year old, the ultimate intent is to steal the car for one’s own use. I applaud the recent changes brought by the Supreme Court in dealing with juveniles and the death penalty, as well as life without parole. I would only hope that the State Legislature would follow the same impetus.”