The Harris County Sheriff's Office has run afoul of a federal law aimed at reducing sexual assaults in jails, leaving 17-year-old inmates with virtually no place to go while awaiting trial in adult court.
The county's jail doesn't have room in its overcrowded facility to carve out a separate space for inmates under 18, who must be housed separately from older inmates under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Efforts to transfer the youthful offenders to other counties have fallen through, officials said.
"We're challenged with the space we have now," Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman acknowledged in a recent interview.Shifting 17-year olds to the juvenile system would not only relieve county jail classification conundrums, it would reduce adult incarceration levels, shifting thousands of cases out of the adult system. Moreover, the youth would be treated in a juvenile system that's less reliant on incarceration and with more access to treatment and rehabilitative resources than adult prisons.
Jails are facing similar problems across Texas and in six other states, where 17-year-olds are considered adults in the criminal justice system. Federal law and the remaining states consider 18 to be the age of adulthood.
And while it's a logistical challenge for Texas jails, experts say it has serious, real-world consequences for youthful offenders.
"Seventeen-year-olds are really at risk in adult facilities; it's not the right place for them," said Michele Deitch, an expert on Texas jail issues and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin.
"They're at risk of physical sexual assault, mental health issues, suicide - much higher rates of all of those things in adult facilities," she said.
If raise-the-age happens next year, it will be because the Lege acquiesces to pragmatic concerns like those expressed by the Sheriffs Association, which usually opposes decarceration reforms. But that happy turn of events doesn't change the fact that, from a normative perspective, it's also the right thing to do. It's always a pleasant surprise when those things align.