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Outlook uncertain for bill to raise age of criminal responsibility

Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston says a bill that would raise the age of adult criminal responsibility in Texas from 17 to 18 years old fails to address his chief concerns: cost and safety.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, is not sold on raising the age of criminal responsibility in Texas from 17 to 18.

House Bill 122 would move 17-year-old offenders from the adult criminal justice system to its juvenile justice counterpart, beginning in 2019. The senator could ultimately decide whether the proposal — which is scheduled for a House vote on Thursday — makes it through the Legislature.

Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, controls the fate of HB 122's Senate companion, which has not had a hearing scheduled. So a "no" from Whitmire would make it difficult to pass a bill out of the Senate — and he says he hasn't seen a "raise the age" plan that addresses his chief concerns: costs and safety.

"If you wanted to do it, $35 million a year to start with," he told The Texas Tribune. "I've seen even higher figures."

Whitmire's safety concerns include his contention that some juvenile justice facilities are "out of control and dangerous." Adding 17-year-olds to the mix would only increase the safety risks, he said.

But two of the House bill's authors, state Reps. Harold Dutton Jr. and Gene Wu, both Houston Democrats, said questions of costs and safety have been answered — it's just a matter of finding the political will to send the bill to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Texas is one of six states that treats 17-year-olds as adults in criminal cases. A dozen states have left that list in the past 10 years, Wu said, adding that most states either overestimated the costs of raising the age or ended up paying nothing for the policy change.

Wu said safety questions also would be addressed because Texas already tries children as adults if the crimes they have committed are severe enough. "That system's been in place for the better part of two decades," he said.

Juvenile justice experts don't all agree on the issue, either.

Advocates say treating 17-year-olds as juveniles makes sense because their rehabilitation needs are similar to 16-year-olds in the juvenile justice system; the move would keep them safe from exploitation by older prisoners; and the likelihood they won't reoffend would increase. Transferring the thousands of 17-year-old offenders to the juvenile justice system also would put Texas in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which prohibits all 17-year-old inmates from being within sight and sound of older prisoners.

recently released report by the Raise the Age Coalition, a network of public policy and civil liberties organizations concludes that fewer 17-year-olds are being arrested, they're mostly committing low-level offenses and they would better be served in the juvenile justice system.

Nevertheless, Harris County Juvenile Probation Department Executive Director Tom Brooks shares Whitmire's concerns. Many youth in the juvenile justice system have serious mental health, welfare, education and other critical needs, Brooks said. Adding 17-year-olds won't help, he said.

"This would be a truly expensive mandate, for lack of a better word, to local counties," he said. "In my county, I have 210 detention beds. I'm out of state compliance at 250. I've [had], on a daily basis, around 290 kids in my detention center. I obviously do not have the capacity at this time to absorb 17-year-olds."

Brooks poked at the argument by advocates that 17-year-olds, like other minors, don't have the mindset of adults and that their brains have not fully developed.

"I would invite them to come and visit [the] 150 kids in my juvenile detention center who are in there for egregious offenses," he said, listing crimes they've committed — aggravated robberies, assaults with a deadly weapon and murder.

"And I can tell you, those kids are sophisticated and streetwise," he added.

Terry Smith, the executive director of the Dallas County Juvenile Department, says she supports raising the age of criminal responsibility, although she would be concerned about how much financial support her department would receive to help serve the population.

Smith said a child's brain development should be taken seriously and factored into how the state responds to their actions.

"If you're a parent, every parent understands that kids make sometimes horrific decisions," Smith said. "Well, our kids are no different just because they're in the juvenile justice system. It means it's combined with other things like trauma, like criminogenic needs, post-traumatic stress — all of those are magnified [for] the kids who are in the juvenile justice system."

Dutton and Wu said their bill has bipartisan support, but colleagues in their chamber also have concerns. House Corrections Committee Chairman James White, R-Hillister, said he "conceptually" supports raising the age of criminal responsibility but that there is already insufficient funding in place for juvenile probation departments, so just implementing the change without additional money would be harmful.

"To put more on the local juvenile probation departments when we have put them behind, and then adding on a group of youth and what their unique challenges are in mental health, behavioral health, where we would expect success, we would probably be setting up for some challenging situations," he said.

Read more Texas criminal justice news:

  • Sandra Bland's mother urged a House committee to pass bill named after her daughter.
  • A Senate panel approved a bill banning bestiality in Texas.
  • The Senate passed a court security bill named in honor of an Austin judge who was attacked in 2015.

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