Texas is one of the last states to treat all 17-year-olds as adults in the eyes of the law.
That may change this year, however, with the Lone Star state joining the other 47 states that have already raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18. State Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston (D), has once again reintroduced a bill that in all but the most serious cases would funnel 17-year-olds accused of committing crimes into the juvenile justice system.
It’s too soon to say whether House Bill 967 has a better chance of getting all the way up the legislative hill than it has in the many years that Dutton, chairman of the juvenile justice committee, has been pushing for it.
That’s partly because the bill only just got tossed into the hopper on Wednesday, and the 2021 session doesn’t open until next Tuesday. But also, the bill’s consistent opponent – another Houston Democrat, Sen. John Whitmire — chairman of the criminal justice committee, hasn’t gone anywhere. Whitmire has blocked the bill several times, as recently as 2019, citing the cost and his belief that lingering safety issues at state juvenile justice facilities would be worsened by raising the age.
Echoing the arguments made in other states, Dutton and others say Texas should invest in rehabilitative community-based services for 17-year-olds because brain science shows that they are still open to turning their lives around — and thus staying out of adult prison is essential.
The current policy, he told the Dallas Morning News last year, “costs us in lives. It costs us in these kids.”
In related legislative news out of Austin, state Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R) filed House Bill 890, which would allow juvenile court judges to continue the coronavirus-era practice of conducting depositions, hearings and other proceedings in juvenile cases through online videoconference — even after the pandemic recedes.
VanDeaver said the bill would be a boon for rural counties in particular because the logistics of getting kids to distant face-to-face proceedings in larger counties are costly. “Allowing these judicial proceedings to continue being conducted remotely greatly improves the efficiency of the process for the state as well the situation of the juveniles,” he said.
All states have some method of handling the cases of minors in adult criminal court, either by granting judges or prosecutors the ability to transfer or file their cases there or with laws that mandate adult court for certain offenses. In 2007, there were 14 states that viewed all youth above the age of 16 or 17 to be adults.
By 2013, the number of states had reached 10, and by 2017 was down to five. And with Michigan and Missouri’s recent passing of “raise the age” legislation, only three states exclude all 17-year-olds from the juvenile justice system: Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin.