WASHINGTON — Brett Merfish had a list of reasons why Texas should raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. She pointed to research showing that states that had already adopted the practice saw crime and recidivism reduced and better outcomes for the juveniles and their families.
She also noted that short-term expenses associated with the change were far less than forecast, and that, over the long term, spending on treatment and intervention is far more cost effective than throwing teens behind bars.
But one reason jumped out, both for its simplicity and as a matter of fairness.
“Right now, when you are 17 in Texas, you can be tried as an adult by a jury, but you can’t sit on that jury because you aren’t old enough. Think about that,” said Merfish, a staff attorney for Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit focused on improving laws and policies related to the justice system. “Under the law, you can’t enter into a contract as a 17-year-old. Yet, every time that 17-year-old enters a plea bargain, they have entered into a contract with the state that will affect their life forever.”
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Across the country, states are overwhelmingly raising the age of responsibility. The results have been so successful, supporters said, that some states are working on expanding the age, or strengthening treatment and diversion programs. Connecticut is now considering raising the age to 21 because their state has been so pleased with the results.
Now lawmakers in Texas and Missouri, two states with historically different approaches to juvenile justice issues, are debating whether to raise the age of responsibility. Texas is more traditional and conservative in dealing with youth crime, advocates there and around the country said, while Missouri is considered one of the more progressive juvenile justice programs in the country, with an emphasis on education and treatment. In fact, the state does not have any jail cells in its entire juvenile system.
Last Wednesday Texas began the process of adopting the age increase. The House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee voted to approve the bill, a critical first step that supporters hope will push the bill through the full House and Senate.
Advocates in Missouri are also optimistic because of strong bipartisan support and what they say is strong public sentiment for juveniles to be given a second change.
Still, passage is far from certain in the face of lawmakers worried about the potential for increased costs, at least when new laws are first adopted.
‘It’s a no-brainer’
Research from other states show those concerns are overblown, and the benefits outweigh any short-term struggles, experts said.
“If this was a policy decision based on just what works and doesn’t work, it’s a no-brainer. Everyone would be making these changes,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, which earlier this month released a sweeping report concluding that increasing the age of responsibility has tremendous benefits, both to the juvenile and society.
“After the 1990s and the failed policy of making easier to try kids as adults, we now have substantial evidence and research showing that didn’t work,” Schindler said. “So states are overwhelmingly inclined to move in a different direction. If we can get past the sound bites and get to what the research says, to focus on what is good for kids and communities, we’ll see these changes everywhere.”
Momentum seems to be pushing toward reform in conservative Texas, Merfish said. Senior legislative leaders of both parties have been receptive to the change, and the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation is in favor, as are the state’s Association for School Resource Officers, the nonprofit Texas Cares for Children and many juvenile and adult court justices in Texas, Merfish said.
“This is a conservative state, and we are focusing a bit on outlining the financial benefits of making the change,” Merfish said. “But we are also using research showing the results of these programs. The lion’s share of 17-year-olds are convicted of nonviolent, small misdemeanors. It makes much more sense to treat them as kids and give them the appropriate treatment.”
Texas’ legislature, which meets only every other year, convened in January for what by law is a maximum of 140 days. If the law isn’t enacted this year, it can’t be discussed until 2019.
Although no deal has been finalized, the current proposal would make anyone 17 or under automatically a juvenile in the justice system. If the crime is serious enough, then prosecutors could petition a juvenile judge to certify the offender as an adult, and a hearing would be held. The offender would have the right to counsel, and the juvenile judge would rule on whether the case should be transferred.
Missouri late to movement
The success of the program in Connecticut has been a catalyst for other states, said Lael Chester, a senior research fellow in the criminal justice program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. Missouri has also been an innovator in juvenile justice issues, she said.
“Missouri is very well known for having a real emphasis on rehabilitation, treating youth with respect, and they have been very successful,” Chester said. “Their facilities are seen as the gold standard. They are small, homelike with a lot of programming. So Missouri really has been a leader, and raising the age is the next logical step.”
Still, Missouri lawmakers aren’t guaranteed to pass a bill raising the age, said Mark Steward, founder and director of the Missouri Youth Services Institute, a consulting firm working to reform juvenile justice issues. Steward was the state’s director of youth services for 17 years and led many of the reform efforts now copied around the country.
Besides having no juvenile prison cells, the state doesn’t allow restraints, solitary confinement and prohibits guards from using pepper spray or batons. And, Steward said, less than 10 percent of all youth who enter the juvenile system ever return, either as juveniles or adults.
“We really take a therapeutic approach at the juvenile level, because at this point I think it’s pretty universally accepted that the best place for a 17-year-old is not to be in an adult system,” Steward said.
For a state that has been so aggressive in rehabilitation efforts, Missouri is late in joining the raise the age movement, Steward acknowledged. One reason is the current system is so successful that there hasn’t been an urgency to make changes. The state has what it calls a “dual sentencing provision,” in which even if a youth is tried, convicted and sentenced as an adult for serious crimes, judges and prosecutors have the option of keeping the offender in the juvenile system until he or she reaches 21, when the offender will be released.
In February, Missouri state Rep. Wayne Wallingford introduced a bill that would automatically classify anyone under 18 as a juvenile, although it preserved the option for the youth to be remanded to adult custody after a full hearing.
Wallingford did not return phone calls seeking comment, but in February he told the Associated Press, “I am not being soft on crime, I am being smart on crime.”
A spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Corrections said the agency could not comment on pending legislation.
One obstacle toward passage is opposition by some juvenile judges who have complained that raising the age could increase their caseloads — a concern raised in virtually every state that has debated the issue, but that mostly hasn’t come to fruition. And, as always, Steward said, fear of costs are a concern.
“OK, maybe there are some extra costs in the beginning, but the benefits are so overwhelmingly good and proven that if they approve this, they’d never be a moment of doubt that they made the right decision,” Steward said.
Despite that prognosis, Steward said there is no guarantee that the state will adopt the change.
Chester, who has studied juvenile systems around the country, said the research is clear that increasing the age of responsibility is the right approach.
“Whether you are looking at crime rates, outcomes for the juveniles, costs, or anything else, the evidence is in if you raise it to 18, good things are going to happen,” Chester said.
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