Texas is one of seven states where the age of criminal responsibility is below 18, and other such jurisdictions are also reconsidering the policy. In North Carolina, Politifact evaluated claims that a short-term investment in raising the age would save money in the long run. They dubbed the claim "mostly true," concluding that:
other states have found juvenile justice reforms including taking teenage offenders out of adult prisons do lead to less crime and long-term savings – possibly as much as $10 for every $1 spent on reform. Yet despite all the evidence about long-term savings, there’s also no denying there would be short-term cost increases for state government.We're talking about systems, not static investments, and the idea that a small short-term expense may generate long-term savings is pretty typical in the criminal-justice field. For example, Texas' investments in treatment and programming on the adult side beginning in 2007 have prevented billions in prison spending. But many of the legislative leaders who pushed through that effort are gone now and it remains to be seen whether the Lege can be convinced to go that route for 17-year olds in a tight budget climate. It's the smart move from a good-government perspective, but good government isn't the sole or even main goal of every politician these days, readers may have noticed.
The Texas Tribune recently dubbed the Raise-the-Age proposal the top priority for juvenile justice advocates this session, providing this analysis:
The top issue for juvenile justice advocates this session will be pushing to raise the age of criminal responsibility from age 17 to 18. State law has considered 17-year-olds adults for criminal purposes for decades, but critics say the practice could do more harm than good to children, who they say have no business being locked up with adult offenders instead of being treated with 16-year-olds and younger people in the juvenile justice system.
Legislation to make the age change failed in the 2015 session, and supporters have vowed to try again. If Texas does not enact the change, lockups in the state would continue to risk being at odds with federal law – the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which bars 17-year-old inmates from being within "sight or sound" of inmates 18 and older. County jails have had issues being able to comply with federal law because of lacking resources.Concerns have been expressed whether the juvie system has capacity to handle 17 year olds, but the proposal comes at a time when juvenile incarceration AND crime have been plummeting for a decade, both in Texas and nationally. Texas incarcerates around 20 percent of the number of youth inmates compared to a decade ago, with juvenile crime continuing to drop as the state decarcerated. So capacity isn't Grits' biggest concern. Rather, I fear the relatively small sums required to implement the change may loom larger in a tight budget year than in a session where they have enough money to pay the bills.
Most Texans already think the age of criminal responsibility is 18 and typically only find out otherwise if their high-school-junior son is arrested and charged as an adult. But laws serve the public better if they match the public's perceptions, and most people don't consider kids "adults" before they can vote, much less drink. Treating a 17-year old as an adult is a legal fiction whose time has passed. Texas should change the law this year.
CORRECTION/UPDATE: This post originally said Texas was one of nine states treating under-18 kids as adults, a number I'd recalled from memory. LBJ School lecturer Michele Deitch emailed to say the total is actually seven. "Louisiana and South Carolina raised the age last year," she advised. Not exactly liberal bastions, those two states. Perhaps that momentum will help convince Texas legislators that it's politically okay to do this.