Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin are the last three states that still view all 17-year-olds as adults in the eyes of the law, and proposals are moving through each of their legislatures that would raise the minimum age to 18 except for the most violent crimes.
The measures are driven by research showing that human brains don’t fully develop until the mid-20s and that teens are therefore susceptible to impulsive behaviors that can easily get them in trouble with the law. Only after the brain is mature, behavioral scientists say, can a person more reliably think through the consequences before acting and make an adult decision.
The prospects for these “Raise the Age” proposals in the three lagging states are not the same in these early days of the legislative year.
In Georgia, it’s so far so good for backers of the idea. In Atlanta on Friday, the Georgia House of Representatives’ Juvenile Justice Committee unanimously reported out House Bill 272 with a favorable recommendation. On Monday, the bill was then referred to the Judiciary Committee for further review. HB 272 has six primary sponsors, all Republicans, whose party comfortably controls both Houses and the governor’s office.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers backed such a policy again this year, this time as part of a broader package of changes to both the criminal and juvenile justice systems. But Republican lawmakers, who control both legislative chambers, said they opposed dealing with such sweeping reforms within the budget, as Evers has proposed. If lawmakers remove Evans’ justice proposals from the budget bill, the proposals could move through as one or more separate bills.
In famously law-and-order Texas, Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton, who has long championed raising the age, reintroduced his legislation on Jan. 5. Texas House Bill 967 hasn’t budged an inch since then. Its prospects, as so often in the past, may lie with another Houston Democrat, Sen. John Whitmire — chairman of the criminal justice committee. 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.
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 dropped to 10, and by 2017 was down to five. And with Michigan and Missouri’s recent passing of “raise the age” legislation, it is down to these final three: Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin.
The rapid spread of Raise the Age laws has been accompanied by a shift in public opinion that reflects a sea change from the get-tough stance of the 1990s, when national researchers and politicians stoked a fear of “superpredator” teens. A survey of 1,000 adults done this month found that 84% support family-involved treatment and rehabilitation plans for youth and 78% supported investing in alternatives to incarceration for youth.