A final effort to raise from 17 to 18 the age at which offenders automatically enter the adult legal system made it through the Texas House on Tuesday, tacked onto a bill reorganizing the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
The House passed Senate Bill 1630, 134-11. The underlying bill, authored by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston would place juveniles being punished for lesser crimes in regional facilities closer to their homes.
Now included is an amendment by state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, that would raise the age of youthful offender from 17 to 18. Several "raise the age" bills filed this session, including one by Wu, a former assistant prosecutor, have failed to make it onto a floor calendar. Courts could still certify younger offenders to stand trial as adults in the most serious crimes.
"This was the last-ditch effort to try to save this," Wu said. "It's something that really needs to get done or it's going to be costly for the cities and counties — not to mention it's the right thing to do."
Since 1918, Texas courts have considered 17-year-olds to be adults. But several states have moved to raise the age to comply with federal criminal standards.
The bill now most likely heads to a conference committee.
Whitmire, who has expressed reservations in the past about raising the age of juvenile offenders because of the cost said via text message on Tuesday that he "looked forward to reviewing it and talking to Rep. Wu."
About 80 percent of the 1,258 youths now in TJJD custody are in one of five institutions spread out across the state even though most are serving time for lesser crimes like car theft, drug possession and assaults. Whitmire's bill will force counties to look at less costlier options to house offenders closer to their homes. He has said that officials have identified some 35 regional facilities that would place most of those convicted of lesser crimes.