Texas state Rep. Gene Wu is getting frustrated. Legislatures around the country are voting to treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles while his own state remains in a shrinking — and he says wrongheaded — club that charges them as adults, no matter the crime. Neighboring Louisiana acted last year, as did South Carolina, leaving just seven states nationwide that still prosecute all youth under 18 as adults.
Wu’s frustration grew earlier this month when New York made it six, joining the wave deciding that helping kids get their lives back on track is better than giving them a criminal record in the adult system. New York, which had automatically treated even 16-year-olds as adults, enacted a sweeping overhaul that included raising the age to 18, effective next year.
“So many people here are saying, well, Texas is Texas, and it doesn’t matter what the rest of the country is doing. But it does, and we should do better on this issue,” said Wu, a Houston attorney and Democratic lawmaker. He sponsored a bill earlier this year that he hopes will increase the state’s age of criminal responsibility to 18.
“Last year Texas was one of nine states, and when we filed this bill there were seven, and now six,” he said. “North Carolina is probably going to raise the age this year, and maybe Georgia, so we just keep falling behind, and there is no reason for it.”
Today, Wu and his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives voted by 82-62 to raise the age, giving supporters hope, although it faces an uncertain Senate fate.
Similar legislative battles are playing out around the country. North Carolina’s House has passed a nearly identical measure, but it faces a potential state Senate roadblock, as does Texas. And last session, Michigan’s House enacted the measure, but it died without making it to a Senate vote.
In each state, opponents argued that such measures would cost too much to implement, overrun juvenile justice court systems and could, potentially, leave dangerous youth on the street.
Supporters of the lower age say such fears are nonsense and point to extensive studies that show the move lowers costs to taxpayers and drastically reduces recidivism rates. More importantly, they argue, such change provides true justice by giving kids picked up for marijuana or other minor crimes a chance to keep their futures from falling apart.
Wu said recidivism statistics showing that 30 percent of all youths charged as juveniles in Texas never commit another crime should make passage a logical choice. But, as a contentious debate during today’s vote made clear, the fight is far from over. Debate lasted more than an hour, with many voicing concerns about potential costs or increases in juvenile crime.
Those concerns are shared by state Sen. John Whitmire, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, according to Wu. Whitmire repeated those concerns in a recent interview with the Texas Tribune.
Whitmire, who has the power to keep the measure from reaching a Senate floor vote, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
In both Connecticut and Illinois, which raised the age in recent years, startup costs were far lower than forecast, and juvenile crime has dropped, according to a March study by the Justice Policy Institute and public records compiled by each state’s juvenile justice department. Connecticut’s switch has been so successful that it is considering raising the age of criminal responsibility to 21.
North Carolina state Rep. Duane Hall hopes such success stories will help him in his third attempt to get his state to act. With New York’s vote, North Carolina is the only state in the nation that automatically charges 16-year-olds as adults.
“Another dubious list for us to be last on,” said Hall, a Democrat who introduced similar measures in 2013 and 2015. Both passed the House, but could not even get a vote in the state Senate.
He’s more optimistic this time, buoyed by the nationwide trend, studies showing the benefits and growing enthusiasm of his colleagues.
“I think we are all in agreement that it is the right thing to do, first of all, but also that in the long term, and even the midterm, really, this is going to save the taxpayers millions of dollars,” Hall said. “In the past, the lone holdover of opposition was the sheriff’s association, but now they are on board, and that has made a difference.
“And North Carolina’s chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mark Martin, has made it a priority issue,” Hall said. “We are in a much better position today, but it will still come down to the budget.”
Estimates say the switch will cost the state about $15 million in the first year and slightly more in the second before cost savings kick in. Studies by the Justice Policy Institute and others have shown that nearly all states that have voted to raise the age experienced startup costs far lower than anticipated, in large part because of lower crime and recidivism rates.
Under North Carolina rules, the House bill must “cross over” to the Senate for consideration by April 27 to have a chance of being passed. There are provisions for it to be incorporated in the state budget process, but that is a longshot, said Hall’s legislative assistant, Gregory Lademann.
Earlier this year, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18, only to see it die in the state Senate. The measure has been referred to a study committee for a full budget analysis, but that study is not scheduled to be finished until Jan. 1, 2018. Supporters hope to push a new bill long before then.
“We believe, and so do a lot of supporters of the legislation, that no matter what the study says, this is the right thing to do, and I’m not sure there is any reason to wait,” said Jason Smith, a policy associate at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice issues. “It’s important to have the financial information, but we’re lagging the rest of the country.
“I think we and other groups have done a very good job trying to educate people about the benefits, both financial and in other ways,” Smith said. “We’ve hosted experts from Connecticut and Illinois to share their success stories and show the positive results, and that’s made a big difference.”
In Texas, Wu, the state representative, is hoping that the weight of evidence nationwide will push the state Senate to finally act.
“This isn’t a tough sell, because people understand, both Republican and Democrat, that we’ve gone from tough on crime to smart on crime, and that has to be the approach,” Wu said. “We have statistics showing that 30 percent of all children put into the juvenile system will not reoffend, will never become adult criminals.
“That is tangible. People can see and feel that and understand the savings when you aren’t going to have to keep putting more people into adult prisons, or take care of them when they can’t get a job or a home because they did something stupid as a 17-year-old kid.”
Wu said the most important reason to raise the age is because it is the moral thing to do for youth and society.
“I represent juveniles in my day job, I had one kid, 16, a good kid, suddenly started fighting at school and getting worse grades,” said Wu, a full-time attorney when the legislature is not in session. “In the juvenile system, he got on our state insurance, and saw a therapist, who found a problem and prescribed mild drugs. He went back to normal almost immediately, got good grades again and stopped fighting.
“His family was poor and didn’t have access to medical so they couldn’t give him the help he needed,” Wu said. “If he was charged as an adult, his life could have been over. Charging in juvenile court, we look at the whole family situation, and the goal is how do we help this kid, as opposed to how do we hammer him, which is what happens in adult court.”
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