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The Police News
Bay Area experts, police weigh in on raising the age for juvenile offenders

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 conflict management.

"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."

Christine Walther, assistant professor of psychology at UHCL, said incomplete development of the frontal lobe can affect 17-year-old's thinking in emotionally charged situations.

"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'

Ryan Sullivan, 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," Mitchell said.

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 to 1.

"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," he said.

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."