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/