Should Texas Raise the Age of Adult Criminal Responsibility?
By Kellie A. Dworaczyk
House Research Organization Focus Report Number 84-11
Part One of the latest House Focus Report ran in our December 2016 issue and covered the adult criminal justice system, the juvenile criminal justice system, proposed legislation, and debate on raising the age. Part Two below is the remainder of the report, which is available in full at http://www.hro.house.state.tx.us/pdf/focus/ageofcriminalresponsibility.pdf .
Texas is one of seven states in which 17-year-olds accused of committing crimes automatically enter the adult criminal justice system, rather than the juvenile system. The age at which young offenders enter the adult system is referred to as the age of adult criminal responsibility. Six states have raised this age to 18 in the past seven years, with two making the change this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Legislation to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 years old in Texas failed in the 2015 legislative session but could emerge again in 2017 during the 85th Legislature. Making such a change would raise related issues, such as when it should be implemented and how funding for the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems would be adjusted. Other changes that might accompany raise-the-age legislation could include revising court procedures and offenses for which the age of the person committing the offense is a factor.
Costs of Implementation
Discussions of placing 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile justice system in Texas often include estimates of the short- and long-term monetary costs of such a change and the experiences of other states.
Supporters of raising the age say: While raising the age could shift some costs from the adult to the juvenile justice system and could initially increase costs for the state and counties, it would reduce other costs and result in long-term economic benefits.
A 2012 report from the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs estimated that raising the age of jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system in Texas would result in $88.9 million in net benefits for each cohort of 17-year-olds. This takes into account costs and savings to taxpayers and the fiscal benefits resulting from better outcomes for youths and reduced victimization.
Long-term savings and other benefits could result because the juvenile system has a better record of reducing recidivism than the adult system, supporters of raising the age say. This would mean fewer crimes, which would save the state and local governments’ money through reduced arrests, prosecutions, and supervision. While cost per day of supervision may be more in the juvenile system, lengths of stay would often be shorter, reducing costs. Those who might have been crime victims would benefit along with rehabilitated youths.
Costs of raising the age could be less than some estimates. Arrests of 17-year-olds have been dropping for years, with 46,173 arrested in 2008 and 22,065 arrested in 2015. The state and counties could absorb those who enter the juvenile system after raise-the-age legislation. Given the high portion of youths who receive probation in the juvenile system, some of the 17-year-olds currently sentenced to adult correctional facilities could instead be placed on probation, which costs less. Seventeen-year-olds often have problems raising bail in the adult system, resulting in them remaining in local jails and increasing costs to counties. The cases of some 17-year-olds could be addressed informally in the juvenile system without court time or through deferred adjudication, and some commonly used diversion options would cost less than having 17-year-olds in the adult system.
Developing and implementing age-appropriate programs and housing for 17-year-olds in the Texas juvenile justice system would not be prohibitively expensive, supporters say. In some cases, the juvenile system already supervises offenders as old as 19, and education, vocation, and career programs used for them could be modified or expanded. Expenses would not occur the first day a law raising the age became effective but would occur gradually as 17-year-olds entered the system.
Raising the age would help reduce costs to local jails and the state to comply with federal standards under PREA. Texas counties are incurring significant costs to try to meet the sight and sound separation standards. They report dedicating entire floors to 17-year-olds, which means leaving beds empty on those floors and having to move older offenders around a jail to meet recreation or medical needs of 17-year-olds. Counties also could incur costs if noncompliance with PREA were raised in a lawsuit against them. One large county is considering moving 17-year-olds from its jail to a facility hours away to comply with PREA.
Some states that have raised their age of criminal responsibility have found it to be less costly than predicted. After a Connecticut law raised the age in 2010, spending on juvenile justice was lower in 2011-12 than it had been 10 years earlier and less than estimated for the change.
Critics of raising the age say: Raising the age could be costly because thousands of 17-year-olds entering the juvenile system could strain juvenile courts, local juvenile probation systems, and juvenile facilities.
Placing 17-year-olds in the juvenile system could require significantly more resources for supervision, programs, and treatment, critics say. These offenders may need new programs focused on job training and life skills to transition to adulthood. Costs of supervision and programs in the juvenile system, due to their intensiveness, are higher than those in the adult system, and providing services for these older youths while keeping probation caseloads low could be expensive for the state and counties.
While the fiscal note for the raise-the-age legislation considered in 2015, HB 1205 by Dutton, estimated a cost of $6.7 million for the first biennium of implementation, costs would increase significantly after that. The first full biennium of implementation would cost $108.8 million, and this estimate does not include potentially significant costs for probation, including mental health, substance abuse, or other services, according to the fiscal note. The fiscal note also reported the state’s cost per day for an inmate in a TDCJ facility is $54.89, much lower than the $437.11 cost per day for a youth in a TJJD facility. The state’s cost per day for community supervision (probation) for someone in the adult system is $1.63, lower than the $5.40 per day for juvenile probation supervision.
Raising the age could be costly for counties. The fiscal note for HB 1205 reported that while county costs would have varied, some estimates indicate the average first-year cost for eight counties would have been $2.2 million. Bexar County estimated an annual cost of between $8.2 million and $8.5 million to implement the change. Harris County estimated $50.1 million in the first full year of implementation and $18.2 million to $19.9 million annually thereafter. The Harris County costs included a new juvenile detention center.
Raising the age of adult criminal responsibility also could have unintended consequences, such as increasing the number of juveniles being certified as adults in the criminal justice system or the number of determinate (fixed) sentences. If these options were used for a large number of 17-year-olds accused of crimes, costs could rise due to more hearings, evaluations, and other procedures.
State and Federal Trends
How much influence federal policies, laws in other states, and court decisions should have on the age of criminal responsibility in Texas is part of the debate on amending the law. These discussions also include the treatment of 17-year-olds under other, non-criminal laws.
Supporters of raising the age say: Such a change would put Texas in line with other states’ laws, federal law on sentencing and correctional practices for those under 18, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have recognized differences between children and mature adults. Laws in these jurisdictions recognize that scientific studies show the brains of teenagers are still maturing and that they can exhibit increased risk taking and poor decision making and impulse control. However, teenagers are malleable and have the potential for rehabilitation, making it appropriate for them to be in the juvenile system, which includes services and support specifically designed for them.
Almost all other states – 43 – have set their age of adult criminal responsibility at 18 years old. The trend has continued in 2016 with discussions in some states about raising the age even higher than 18. Raising the age also would resolve inconsistencies in how state and federal law treats 17-year-olds. Under current law, the state holds 17-year-olds accountable for criminal actions as if they were adults, but they cannot vote, serve on a jury, or buy tobacco, alcohol, or lottery tickets.
Critics of raising the age say: Many options are available under the current model for 17-year-olds in the criminal justice system to be treated appropriately. Most receive probation in the adult system, and the adult prison system operates a youthful offender program designed for them. While 17-year-olds may need services for their age group, this can be done in the adult system, rather than altering Texas’ juvenile justice system to follow a trend.
Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted with permission from the House Research Organization, a nonpartisan department of the Texas House of Representatives that examines state issues and analyzes legislation being considered by the Texas Legislature. To view the report in full, go to http://www.hro.house.state.tx.us/pdf/focus/ageofcriminalresponsibility.pdf.