The Texas House is leading the way on ensuring that 17-year-olds will no longer enter the legal system as adults. If it becomes law, House Bill 122 by State Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) would change Texas’ nearly 100-year-old law and keep 17-year-olds out of adult prison, as well as raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18.
“We recognize their mental capabilities are not the same as adults, yet we charge them as adults,” said Dutton.
The criminal justice reform movement has grown since past attempts at passing this measure. With conservative groups, juvenile justice advocates, and progressives joining together to support the legislation, Texas is one step closer to leaving the handful of states that still charge 17-year-olds as adults.
The legislation not only protects juveniles, but it protects parental rights, makes communities safer, and can be cost effective. Further, the change would put Texas in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires those under 17 to be housed separately from older inmates.
A Texas Department of Public Safety study showed that out of all 17-year-olds arrested in 2015, 95 percent were accused of nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors. Putting these low-level offenders in jail with inmates who have committed violent crimes is not only bad for the juvenile, but is also bad for the communities they’ll be returning to upon release.
During discussion on the bill, Dutton said, “What do 2017 and 1918 have in common? 1918 is when Texas decided to hold 17-year-olds criminally responsible.”
Just a week ago, New York joined the ranks of states raising the age of criminal responsibility after its legislature passed a similar measure. However, New York even considered 16-year-olds as adults when they entered the justice system. Their new law would divert a majority of those cases to Family Court.
“This singular piece of legislation is probably the most important change to our criminal justice system that we have probably done in five decades,” emphatically said coauthor State Rep. Gene Wu shortly before the bill’s passage.
The bill will now move to the Texas Senate, where a companion bill already waits in committee. If passed and signed by the governor, the law would begin to be enforced in 2021.