Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Declining juvie crime, post-'07 reforms, make raise-the-age bill practical, feasible

(UPDATE-4/20: The Texas House approved HB 122 by an 83-53 vote on second reading. MORE: And on to the senate with 92 votes on third reading.)

It's that time of the year at the Texas Legislature where everything moves so fast and the politics are so fluid that horse race coverage (what will or won't pass) is basically meaningless. Now is the time for observation and debate on these topics, not speculation and prediction. At this point, soothsaying is beyond the ken of even grizzled professionals when it comes to legislative outcomes. For the most part, for bills moving through the process, nobody really knows what will happen, or can know.

Indeed this time of the legislative session is less like a horse race and more like a rodeo - a danger-filled spectacle ruled by clowns. And as our friends in the rodeo like to say, there's never been a horse that can't be rode, never been a cowboy can't be throwed.

So, when one sees articles like this one from the Texas Tribune's Jonathan Silver depicting the demise of Raise the Age legislation in the senate before it's even had a vote in the House, one may take it with a grain of salt. This sort of coverage too often substitutes for actual reporting on the subject matter being debated and allows politicians to make everything about themselves instead of the issues underlying important legislation.

And to be clear, HB 122, the raise-the-age bill, is important legislation. Most parents of 17-year olds don't yet consider them adults, even if their government does. Texas is one of only six states which still treat 17 year olds as adults for purposes of prosecuting them (though not for purposes of buying cigarettes or alcohol, for example).

Through this debate, we're learning a lot more about the types and scope of juvenile crime. Texas Appleseed recently published a report analyzing arrests by age category to discover the impact of HB 122. They found that arrests of 17-year olds declined every year since 2012, and 87 percent of crimes committed by this cohort were nonviolent offenses - mainly marijuana possession and theft.

Of 17 year olds convicted of drug crimes, only 1.2 percent were for dealing - nearly all of them marijuana. In general, "The rates at which they are arrested along with the offenses for which they are booked resemble the rates and offenses for 16-year-olds; yet their different treatment leads to very different outcomes."

Arrest rates for 17 year olds overall are declining, said the report, from 70 arrests per 1,000 in 2013 to 58 per 1,000 in 2015. Texas arrested more than double the number of 17 year olds in 2008 compared to 2015.

Texas juvenile probation directors are split on the question of raising the age, with Harris County's opposing the bill but others, including in Dallas, more supportive. Nationally, most juvenile-justice professionals consider the lower age inappropriate and lamentable.

Appleseed made an argument which your correspondent has separately made in conversations about the bill: That juvenile reforms since 2007, along with declining juvenile crime, have quite capably set the stage for this reform:
In 2007, the Texas Legislature began a process of restructuring the juvenile justice system, passing the first of several bills and budget initiatives that would move youth out of ineffective and expensive state secure facilities and into community-based alternatives. The process resulted in a 61 percent decrease in juvenile arrests between 2007 & 2015. At the same time, funding was shifted away from state secure facilities and into juvenile probation. A 2015 report published by the Council of State Governments (CSG) showed that per capita funding for juvenile probation departments increased 68 percent between FY 2005 & FY 2012. 
The same CSG report concluded that while the news was generally good for Texas reforms – with youth rehabilitated locally showing better outcomes than those committed to state secure facilities – there was room for improvement in recidivism rates by targeting resources and services on youth most likely to reoffend. Specifically, CSG found that the counties the researchers studied failed to “effectively target…[juvenile probation] supervision resources and services on those youth most likely to reoffend.” Instead, counties continued to place youth at low risk of reoffending in services and programs that they didn’t need – likely contributing to higher re-offense rates. 
Taken together, the large reduction in arrests, increase in funding for juvenile probation, and findings from CSG showing more opportunity to effectively utilize state taxpayer dollars indicates that Texas’ juvenile system is well-poised to absorb 17-year-olds.
That pretty much coincides with my view. In 2007, Grits might have agreed that the state was ill-prepared to make this shift. Today, after a decade of juvie decarceration coupled with double digit declines in juvenile crime, the system seems much more capable of handling an influx of 17 year olds. That's especially true if counties can more “effectively target…supervision resources and services on those youth most likely to reoffend,” which they ought to be doing already, anyway.

Texans can go here to send their state legislators an email supporting HB 122. Get it done before Thursday, when legislators take a vote. Or else go here to find your state representative's office phone number and call them before Thursday to ask that they support the bill.


Anonymous said...


jdgalt said...

It seems to me that 17- and even 16-year-olds are as capable of responsibility as those older, and that the government infantilizes people too much already. Rather than change the law to make 17-year-olds "children" for the purpose of criminal (non-)responsibility, I would change it to give them all the rights of adults, making them adults in every sense.

Anonymous said...

You know I'm glad I'm out of it. I think dealing with the issues facing these young offenders has aged me well beyond my time. I now find myself agreeing more with your line of thinking. It may have taken me 7 years post TYC to rid myself of the thinking errors I faced back then, but I'm now thinking differently. 17 year olds have no business in TDC, and TDC will agree that they are best managed through the juvenile justice system. BTW.... what is the felony oyster count as of today? lol...- Tommy

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Implementation not immediate, 8:00, no fiscal note for this biennium. See: http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlodocs/85R/fiscalnotes/html/HB00122H.htm

@JDG, that would at least be consistent. But yours is a lonely stance. Don't think the Lege will go for letting 17 year olds drink, buy cigarettes, vote, etc..

Good to hear from you, Tommy. Hope you're doing well. Don't know the current felony oyster total, but no new ones were proposed this year, fwiw. :)

rozmataz said...

One's brain is not matured biologically until age 24. Young people are very impressionable in their teen years. My observations are that during this time of "growing up", kids can go to the right or to the left. I've seen a sweet, thoughtful girl become a selfish, self-centered bitch when she was in her mid-teens. Likewise, a kid who seemed to live on the brink matured into a loving, generous young man. I think juvenile offenders need to be in a safe environment where they receive counseling, hear stories of heroes on the outside who turned from crime to a rewarding career. These children (and that is what they are) should not be incarcerated with adult offenders. In the first place, they are too vulnerable, in the second place, there are no positive role models, and, most importantly, they are wasting their time on earth and are not given an opportunity to have a better life when they choose not to offend.

Our prisons in Texas are horrible. I've heard some scary stories of juvie, too. Many times the kids suffer a lot of trauma, from sexual abuse to bullying and other unacceptable and abusive behavior by adults and other kids. I hope and pray that our(un)justice system will reform itself so all those incarcerated-and especially the young ones can be helped and strengthened in a good way.