How old is 17? That's what lawmakers are being asked to consider when thinking of House Bill 676, a proposed law that would raise the age of juvenile offenders from 17 to 18.
Under the proposal, sponsored by Gene Wu,
Democrat-Houston, most 17-year-olds would be tried as juveniles instead
of adults unless their crimes were particularly serious. It would also
mean that most youth under age 18 who are serving time would be moved
from jail to juvenile detention centers.
What changes would the law mean for Bay Area local governments, law enforcement agencies and communities?
Many area law
enforcement agencies report that, on the street level, HB 676 wouldn't
interfere with day-to-day operations. But questions arise about how a
change might affect crowding or needs at local juvenile facilities.
Local experts on criminology and psychology say that
because of 17-year-olds' stage of brain development, some make impulsive
decisions that get them in trouble and that the focus should be on
rehabilitation outside an adult prison setting.
Rehabilitation vs. incarceration
Raising the age for juvenile offenders makes sense to Everett Penn, professor of criminology at University of Houston–Clear Lake and a co-founder of the Teen and Police Service Academy,
an organization that connects at-risk youths with law enforcement
mentors to discuss issues like bullying, gang violence, drugs and
"The brain does not reach its full potential until
about the age of 25," Penn said, "and the developmental theory
literature tells us that the last part of the brain that forms is that
of the frontal lobe, which controls our impulsivity."
While Penn believes that people should answer for
their crimes regardless of their age, he says rehabilitation should be
the focus for adolescents.
"Anything that moves us closer to that age of
discussing mens rea - or whether or not someone having a guilty
conscience for the crime they've committed - is a good discussion," he
said. "In most cases, true mens rea doesn't happen until that frontal
lobe is completely developed."
assistant professor of psychology at UHCL, said incomplete development
of the frontal lobe can affect 17-year-old's thinking in emotionally
"In situations that are not particularly emotional,
many adolescents can make decisions as logically as adults before they
are 17 years old," said Walther. "In emotionally charged situations,
adolescents make more impulsive, and often poor, decisions."
Penn said that having 17-year-olds in a juvenile detention facility will provide more opportunities for rehabilitation.
In adult jails, he said, "There are smaller chances
of fixing the wrong and moving forward to make that person a functioning
member of society than there are in the juvenile justice system."
'Business as usual'
public information officer for the Harris County Sheriff's Office, said
that officers on the street wouldn't have to change the way they work
if the bill becomes law.
"You're not looking at age when you're
investigating a crime - you're investigating the crime and that's about
as simple as that," Sullivan said. "So, if we're responding to an
aggravated robbery, we're not concerned if the offender is 15 or 21,
we're just concerned with who is responsible. From there it's really the
courts who determine how to prosecute moving forward. That criminal
responsibility gets figured out later down the road."
Pearland Police Department spokesman Jason Wells
said age has little to do with how his department handles a crime and
simply serves as an indicator of where the offender would be taken to
await a hearing or trial.
If the age for juvenile offenders is raised, "It
would be business as usual," said Wells, who is an officer. "From now
on, people that were 17 who we would have previously taken to county or
city jails for their offense would instead be taken to the appropriate
juvenile facility for their area."
In fact, depending on the crime, he said, officers
now exercise some leeway on certain low-level incidents to keep
17-year-olds away from adult facilities.
Pasadena Police Department spokesman Vance Mitchell said the department would work to follow any laws set forth by the state.
"Without seeing the final law, we would not be
comfortable speculating on how the new law would affect how officers do
their jobs. Our officers would enforce the law as it is written,"
Pondering 'peer contagion'
Galveston County Sheriff's Office Capt. Tracy Keele
said that if passed, the bill wouldn't affect the way deputies with his
agency approached their jobs. But he voiced concern regarding the
potential influence a 17-year-old could have on younger adolescents in a
juvenile detention facility.
"A lot of the 17-year-olds are subject to more
experience, more crimes, and they can be, in my opinion, more criminally
minded than some of the 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds in a juvenile
facility," he said. "Exposing some of the younger juveniles to a
17-year-old with more criminal experience could be a bad idea."
Walther said that such "peer contagion" works both
ways, saying that while 17-year-olds could potentially put younger
adolescents at risk in a juvenile facility, they themselves could be at
risk if placed in an adult facility. In many cases, Walther said,
detention facilities, regardless of the ages of its offenders, are not
often places for rehabilitation.
"The concern with putting adolescents in a facility,
even one designed for other juvenile offenders, is the potential
exposure to offenders who have committed more serious crimes," she said.
"Through peer contagion, if adolescents who have committed minor crimes
are placed in juvenile facilities, this exposes them to peers who have
committed more serious crimes, which can potentially result in an
escalation in offending. This escalation is even more likely to occur if
adolescents are placed in a facility with adult offenders."
Keele noted that 17-year-olds are probably not mentally ready for the experience offered at an adult facility.
"Even 18- and 19-year-olds aren't old enough to handle what is waiting on them in the adult facility," he said.
Crowding and security issues
Sullivan said the biggest effect if HB 676 becomes law would be seen at detention facilities.
The law would mean either retrying incarcerated
17-year-olds as adults or moving them into juvenile facilities. That
could have positive and negative effects for Harris County Sheriff's
Department detention facilities.
On one hand, it would make the county jail compliant
with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, an act signed into law in 2003 by
President George W. Bush.
Inspections have been slowly rolling out to seek compliance from
detention centers around the country, and Harris County's jail recently
went through an audit, passing every issue for PREA compliance except
one - separating minors and adults by sight and sound.
"It's impossible for us to do," Sullivan said. "We do
house them separately; so they are in their own individual area, but
separating them by sight and sound would mean that if a 17-year-old was
sick, I would have to clear the hallways and the clinic of all adults to
take them down to see a doctor. It would mean that if they have to go
to court, they would have to be transported separately from the rest of
the inmates going to court. So, moving the 17-year-olds out of our
facility would make us completely PREA compliant."
But on the other hand, moving 17-year-old inmates to juvenile facilities would likely crowd facilities.
"We currently have anywhere from 75 to 100
17-year-old inmates in our custody," Sullivan said. "The juvenile
detention facilities in Harris County currently don't have the capacity
to take that burden on; so there would likely be a cost to county
taxpayers for them to be able to absorb those inmates."
Keele said the same situation exists in Galveston County.
The Jerry J. Esmond Juvenile Justice Center "is
typically at 99 percent capacity; so you're looking at overcrowding if
we move inmates from the adult facility over," Keel said.
There are potential security risks associated with
moving 17-year-old inmates who have been in adult facilities to juvenile
facilities, law enforcement officials said.
"Juvenile detention centers aren't necessarily
equipped to handle the more serious crimes that some of our 17-year-olds
commit," Sullivan said. "We, on the other hand, are a super maximum
security facility and can take in all levels of offenders."
Keele said that to be in Texas state jail compliance,
the ratio of inmates to corrections officers has to be no more than 45
"Moving a surplus of inmates to the facility would
outnumber the corrections officers by a wider margin and make that
facility be out of compliance," he said. "Now, you're looking at not
having the staff to maintain a constant watch over the adolescents in
their care, and that could be dangerous, too."
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the
Senate Criminal Justice Committee, has said that it costs $30,000 to
jail an adult for a year and $150,000 for a juvenile. He said current
estimates are that if it becomes law, the proposal would cost Harris
County about $50 million.
Advocates say that long-term savings would come through less recidivism.
Penn said while he favors raising the age of criminal
responsibility to 18, he has concerns about what the future could hold
for those housed in juvenile facilities if the bill were to pass.
"I remain concerned about the funding necessary for
the juvenile justice system to take on this new population and provide
them with the same rehabilitative services current juveniles receive,"
Keele offered a potential solution.
"Chances are, we'll have to build a second facility
anyway due to overcrowding; so it makes sense to build a facility that
would only house 17-year-olds and could serve as a transitional
facility. That way, they're separated by sight and sound from adults in
the adult facility; so they can't get the influence from adults, but
they're also separated from younger juveniles, which removes the risk of
them influencing other adolescents."