A new bill could change the way the Texas justice system upholds the law against minors who are a year away from being an adult.
Right now, 17-year-olds that commit crimes could be charged as an adult, but one state lawmaker thinks that could even lead to a worse situation.
The push to raise the age of criminal responsibility from, 17 to 18, has been going on for years.
A similar bill passed in the House in 2017, but didn’t come up for a vote in the Senate, and opinions seem to vary on the issue.
“Right now anybody that’s 17-years-old on one day is treated as an adult,” said Luis V. Saenz, Cameron County district attorney. “That means you can be charged as an adult, arrested as an adult and you get taken to jail as an adult.”
But, the proposed House Bill 344 aims to change that, ensuring that minors be treated as such across the board.
“Most laws recognize this by requiring teenagers to be, 18, to vote, to join the military, to live independently,” said Jose Flores says, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “We’re saying that 17-year-olds aren’t mature enough to participate in those activities but they can be punished as adults if they commit a crime here in Texas.”
Saenz disagrees, and said adult crimes should be met with equal punishment.
“As a prosecutor, and based on what I’ve seen, and based on my experience, I’m not in favor of this change,” he said. “They’re committing murder, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated robbery, aggravated kidnapping, committing the most horrendous crimes that they can commit, first degree crimes, so to give them an extra year of being a juvenile — I don’t see that as being good for the community.”
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition says 95 percent of these crimes are nonviolent, misdemeanor offenses, and placing 17-year-olds in adult jail facilities does more harm than good.
“We want to avoid introducing our youth already to the adult system which in turn could lead them to ending up in not jails, but prisons here in Texas,” Flores said.
The push would force the Texas Juvenile Department to house anyone under the age of, 18, and could cost $10 million dollars to house more minors.
“I talk about juveniles from what I see them do,” Saenz said.
The bill does say that for serious and/or violent crimes, a judge can still decide to try them as adults.