Three Reasons Why Texas Lawmakers Should Raise the Age

 

In Texas, a 17-year-old that is arrested is automatically sent to the adult criminal justice system. This is done regardless of how minor the offense is. In fact, the majority of these youth are arrested for non-violent and misdemeanor crimes.

Texans have advocated for raising the age that a child can be prosecuted as an adult for years. Nonetheless, Texas remains one of only three states left that treats these teens as adults for Criminal Justice Purposes. While this is long overdue, legislators must raise the age this session.

The Adult Criminal Justice System is no place for 17-Year-old Youth.

Adult facilities and services are not equipped for the needs of youth. Juvenile systems focus more on rehabilitative care as compared to adult facilities. It is often the case that treatment programs for adults don’t allow 17-year-old in their program.  Additionally, youth are at an increased risk of violence and sexual assault. PREA, the Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, requires jails to separate children in their care from adults. Anyone under the age of 18 must be separated by sight and sound. This can lead to 17-year-olds being held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day. It is also very costly for county jails to comply with PREA.

Youth involved in the adult criminal system receive worse outcomes than their youth peers.

Youth involved in the adult criminal system are more likely to recidivate. Youth who are transferred from the juvenile court system to the adult criminal system are approximately 34% more likely than youth in the juvenile court system to be re-arrested for violent or other crimes. And unlike in the juvenile system, youth are given adult criminal records. This adversely impacts their chances of obtaining employment, obtaining housing, furthering their education, and serving in the military.

The best time to make this change is now!

Due to the COVID pandemic, juvenile facility populations are at an all-time low. Even before the pandemic, these facilities were projected to be at a record low. The juvenile state residential population is projected to decrease 2.7 percent per year for the next 5 years. During the projected period,  these facilities will remain 44.7 percent below operating capacity. This, combined with a 65 percent decline of the arrest of 17-year-olds, creates capacity and opportunity to raise the age.[1]

Bills that will raise the age have already been filed. Texas should join the other 47 states that have already chosen to prioritize helping children. The 87th Texas Legislatures must raise the age.

Find more information on Raising the Age in Texas here.

 

[1] Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), The Texas Crime Report for 2019 –Texas Arrest Data, https://www.dps.texas.gov/administration/crime_records/pages/crimestatistics.htm

Texas Teachers did it, now it’s the Lawmakers Turn. Our Public Education System Needs You!

"student_ipad_school - 142" by flickingerbrad is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“student_ipad_school – 142” by flickingerbrad is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The COVID-19 pandemic forced our educators to adjust and teach like never before in history. This unprecedented event made public educators persevere and teach our children from non-traditional settings. Now that we have made the adjustments, our educators depend on our lawmakers to assist in their “new” normal.

Article 7 of our Texas Constitution lays out a clear understanding regarding our children’s education:

A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.

But, what exactly does this mean? And how can we apply it to the current pandemic and the future of education?

The first question can be answered by analyzing the language of Article 7. First, “a general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people” means that the spread of knowledge is essential to ensuring the fundamental principles that we have as citizens of Texas. Next, it speaks of the “duty of the legislature of the state”. State lawmakers must use their position to create and vote on laws in the best interest of Texas citizens. Lastly, it discusses what their duty is concerning public education, they must  “make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools”. This means that the legislature must understand the citizens of Texas situations and provide help towards those situations— adjusting as needed to create a seamless and positive outcome for teachers and students in free publicly funded schools.

To answer the second question, we can apply this to the current pandemic by making sure that the technology needs are matched with what is needed to give the schoolchildren of Texas an adequate education. When we look at the future of education, we are looking for new laws that ensure future instances where we must rely on education over the internet or electronically is done in a manner where no child is left behind.

As the Texas legislature convenes this year for its 87th legislation, education should be put at the forefront. It is easy at times to look at cutting education funding but doing so will be detrimental to Texas children and families. As we enter into this session there is good news with the Texas budget. There were cutbacks made during the summer of 2020 by Governor Abbot. This past December the federal government gave Texas $5 billion in federal relief funds for education. This gives us hope that the lawmakers will use funds to support the needs of our public education system. Additionally, the rise in property taxes within the last nine years can support our current educational needs. The lawmakers can shore up funds from these funds that are set aside, and navigate them to our public education system.

The lawmakers have plenty of resources to ensure our children are being educated. There are funds that can be allocated to public education, we just need the legislatures to ensure this is a priority. This might be a small step for the lawmakers in Austin, yet it can lead to a large step in the right direction towards the education of our Texas children.

Raising the Age: Is Texas Going “Soft on Crime?”

In the past decade, the Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty and mandatory life without parole for crimes committed while under the age of eighteen amount to cruel and unusual and are therefore unconstitutional.[1] [2] The Court, or at least a majority of it, appears to believe eighteen is the appropriate age to treat someone as an adult. Justice Kennedy wrote that he based his decision on contemporary research that shows that young teens simply do not have the same decision-making skills as a middle-aged adult. However, many states, including Texas, use seventeen as the age of criminal responsibility. [3] While a high school junior might not be able to vote or buy cigarettes, she could be treated and perhaps more importantly, sentenced, as an adult. If the highest court in the US seems to be telling us the eighteen is the age where we should treat kids as adults, why do some states still have laws on the books that treat seventeen-year-old kids as adults?

As I was reading over two bills up for consideration in the Texas House of Representatives, HB330 and HB53, that would raise the age of criminal responsibility to eighteen, I couldn’t quite figure out a couple of things. First, why has it taken almost a decade after Roper to change these rules? And second, who would oppose this and why would they oppose it? I am not naive to the fact that raising the age could cost the state money. But from a philosophical or political viewpoint, as I read the bills, it seemed to be pretty straightforward. If SCOTUS and current research says the age where a state can inflict the ultimate punishment is eighteen, then the age of criminal responsibility should be eighteen as well.

However, I gained a different perspective following a conversation with a friend over drinks last weekend. We were discussing what we had been working on that week and I mentioned I had been reading the two bills mentioned above. My friend is not a lawyer and isn’t particularly politically active. After briefly summarizing the bills, my friend’s immediate reaction?

“So Texas is going softer on crime?”

He immediately connected the idea that treating more people as kids to going soft on crime. I was unprepared for such an immediate and strong reaction. As Justice Kennedy noted, kids should be treated as kids because they do not have the same capability as adults to make decisions. Treating them as such does not mean you are soft on crime. Instead, it reflects the reality of their capabilities. However, if my friend’s comment is reflective of a large segment of the public, then perhaps changing the Texas law could take even longer.

[1] Roper v. Simmons, 540 U.S. 1160 (2004).

[2] Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).

[3] State-By-State Legal Resource Guide- accessed Feb 9- http://www.usfca.edu/law/jlwop/resource_guide/