As more states come in line with the federal standards that mark the age of adulthood at 18, state Rep. Gene Wu believes this is the year Texas will stop prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults. Wu and a fellow Houston Democratic lawmaker have filed a pair of bills that would do just that.
“Is this the right way to treat children?” Wu said in an interview with the American-Statesman. “Think about when you were 17 and all the dumb things you did.”
Texas is one of only seven states that continue to prosecute 17-year-olds as adults despite a series of Supreme Court rulings that set the threshold for adulthood at 18. In 2015, that meant that about 22,000 teenagers who would have been prosecuted as juveniles in most of the United States were instead tried as adults in Texas, according to data compiled by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
About 87 percent of those arrests are for nonviolent offenses, including misdemeanor theft and possession of marijuana, the two most common charges filed against 17-year-olds, the data showed.
Raising the age of adult prosecution would no doubt have a significant effect on Texas’ juvenile justice system because it would increase the number of juvenile arrests by about 40 percent, from nearly 53,000 to about 75,000, according to data from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Wu said increasing the capacity of local and state programs to accommodate more juveniles comes with a cost. But it would be offset over time, he said, by reducing the number of people in the Texas prison system and by rehabilitating 17-year-olds who might re-offend under the current system because they lack access to rehabilitation programs.
“In the juvenile system, they would be eligible for more programs, like counseling and tutoring,” Wu said. “What we’re just saying is: Let’s give these kids a second chance.”
The age shift would also have an effect on local jails, where federal law prohibits 17-year-old inmates from being placed in the general population. For Hays County, compliance with federal law has become costly.
Hays County already spends about $2 million a year to send older inmates to other jails because of overcrowding. Part of that cost stems from holding 17-year-old inmates in a separate area that has 14 beds. That area is almost never full, leaving valuable beds empty.
“It affects us tremendously and is a huge challenge for us,” said Capt. Mike Davenport, head of the corrections bureau at the Hays County sheriff’s office.
The jail was built in 1989, before the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which prohibits jailers from housing 17-year-olds in a jail’s general population with adult inmates.
“What we have to do is isolate an area just for 17-year-olds,” Davenport said. “So we have empty beds we can’t use because we have 17-year-olds occupying that space.”
Recently, the Hays County Jail held five 17-year-olds in its separate 14-bed pod. To Davenport, that means nine empty beds and nine inmates being outsourced to other counties at a cost of $50 a person per day. “That’s $450 a day,” he noted.
At that rate, getting the teenagers out of the adult jail would save Hays County more than $150,000 a year. Voters in November did approve a bond sale to pay for increasing capacity at the jail, but construction isn’t expected to be completed until 2020.
In Williamson County, compliance with PREA means dedicating a single corrections officer to a small number of 17-year-old inmates while every other corrections officer oversees 48 adults, Sheriff Robert Chody said. When Chody spoke to the Statesman, he had four 17-year-old inmates in his jail.
“You are taking a corrections officer out of the equation,” Chody said.
Travis County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Kristen Dark said they have no problems housing 17-year-olds in a separate pod in the Travis County Jail.
In 2016, authorities booked 17-year-olds into the jail 787 times, accounting for 11,520 “bed days” at a cost of roughly $725,000, according to the sheriff’s office.
“I can understand both sides of the argument,” Chody said. “My first thought is, just because they are being brought up to the age of 18, does that make them considered safe in a jail environment? You could have some 20-year-olds that could be considered a target. Inmates of all ages will tell you if they think they are a target. And we work to take care of them.”
BY THE NUMBERS
17: The age threshold for adulthood in Texas.
22,052: 17-year-olds arrested in Texas in 2015.
52,744: Juveniles arrested in Texas in 2015.
787: 17-year-olds arrested in Travis County in 2016.
Sources: Texas Department of Public Safety, Travis County sheriff’s office, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition