DALLAS — Already facing calls to limit when teenagers are treated as adults in the criminal justice system, Texas lawmakers next year may also see legislation trying to keep preteens from being shunted into the juvenile justice system.
At a legislative hearing Wednesday, advocates and service providers for youth and young adults asked the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee to change current law that allows children as young as 10 to be arrested and referred for juvenile probation.
The request joins a push by some experts to raise from 17 to 18 the age at which offenders are automatically treated as adults. Legislation to make that change failed in the 2015 session and is expected to return in 2017.
Early labels have a negative effect, Lauren Rose, Texans Care for Children director of youth justice policy, told lawmakers, and troubled 10- to 13-year-olds should be kept out of the juvenile justice system and steered toward other child care agencies.
Youths haven't developed enough mentally to make the best decisions, said Terry Smith, Dallas County Juvenile Department executive director and chief probation officer.
"They don't have the developmental capacity," she said. "Their brains aren't developed. Well, how can we not apply that to 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds? We're labeling, we're stigmatizing them."
Texas law has considered 17-year-olds adults for criminal purposes for almost 100 years. Experts, lawmakers and advocates in recent years have argued that the practice is wasteful, counterproductive and harmful to the public. A 17-year-old can be rehabilitated and returned to society after treatment just like those 16 and younger, they contend.
Teens in the juvenile system are more likely to receive help with education, trauma, mental illness and substance abuse than teens sent into the adult system, according to a January 2015 House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee interim report. The committee recommended raising the age, as long as the Legislature authorizes the funding to make it work.
The auto insurance industry gets it right, Smith said Wednesday. Its rates are different for 16 to 25-year-old drivers, she said.
"They're impetuous," she said. "[Auto-insurance companies] know that. They get that."
The age at which criminal intent can be formed remains unknown, said committee Chairman Harold Dutton, D-Houston.
Unanswered questions about how a change would look and the financial costs behind it kept "raise the age" legislation from advancing last session.
"By the next session, there will be more research done to understand the fiscal implication that will alleviate the concerns of stakeholders," Rose said.
If Texas does nothing about the age issue, it would still have to deal with a federal law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which bars 17-year-old inmates from being within "sight or sound" of inmates 18 and older. County jails generally don't have the resources to make that a reality, which would make counties liable if a 17-year-old inmate is assaulted.
Read more stories about the Texas juvenile justice system:
- Juvenile Justice Agency Making Case to Escape Budget Cuts – If state leaders insist, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has identified ways to cut its budget by $16.8 million, or 2.8 percent, for the 2018-2019 biennium. But the agency really wants a $170 million bump so it can comply with state and federal laws, fix up some of its battered facilities and bolster behavioral programs.
- Juvenile Offenders Find Rehabilitation Through Work – Texas juvenile justice officials think they might have found a solution to some of their incarcerated youths' behavior problems: putting them to work. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has developed a pilot program to place young offenders in jobs if they have already earned a high school diploma or GED. Normally, youths have to keep up a 16-hour day that includes going to classes even if they have completed their required education.
- Offenders Return to State School With Thanks – Former youth talk about how Giddings State School helped give their lives a 180-degree turn. Many had the same problems growing up: no respect for authority, an inability to communicate civilly and an indifference to what could happen to them along the way.