Scores of youthful offenders are being sent straight into the adult criminal justice system - 246 of them last year alone - for crimes they committed as juveniles.
Juvenile justice advocates are blaming last year's 22 percent spike on a reform effort launched two years ago that was designed to protect younger offenders. They say young people who are easier to rehabilitate are being forced into a harsher adult setting that can't meet their needs.
After the Texas Youth Commission sex abuse scandal in 2007, state officials decided the agency would no longer handle offenders 19 to 21 - a move intended in part to protect younger children from older youths.
"It's pretty simple," said Jill Mata, Bexar County's chief juvenile prosecutor. "If we didn't have enough time to work with these kids within the juvenile justice system (before they turned 19), then we were faced with no option but to certify them as adults."
Bexar County certified 28 juveniles as adults last year, a 75 percent jump from a year earlier.
Tarrant County certified 11 juveniles as adults last year, nearly triple the number from a year earlier. Harris County saw a more modest rise in adult certifications since the TYC reforms passed in 2007, from 74 cases in 2007 to 76 last year.
Bill Hawkins, who until last month was Harris County's chief juvenile prosecutor, said the length of time a youth would have at TYC was one of the major factors for him in deciding whether to seek adult certification for particular kids. "When the window was shortened, certification became a more viable option in some cases," he said.
Texas allows juveniles as young as 14 to stand trial as adults for capital and first-degree felonies. Fifteen-year-olds can stand trial as adults for any kind of felony.
TYC ombudsman Will Harrell, who in a recent report highlighted the increase in adult certifications last year, would like to see the age limit restored to 21.
But with key lawmakers vowing to further reduce TYC's already dwindling population - calling the troubled agency a lost cause - it's not clear if there will be an appetite for raising TYC's maximum age past 18.
"We're not going to change anything at this stage," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "We need a greater sampling before we determine that there's a cause and effect. I'm not convinced."
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Whitmire: Don't change TYC policy on 19-20 year olds for now
Despite a recent analysis by TYC's Ombudsman saying changes from 2007 resulted in more Texas youth being certified as adults for crimes committed as juveniles, Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire says the policy is unlikely to change this session, the San Antonio Express News reported yesterday ("More juvenile offenders landing in actual prison," Feb. 23):