Push to stop charging 17-year-olds as adults clears one hurdle

Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) — You have to be 18 to vote, to join the military or to get married without parental permission — but in Texas, you don’t have to be 18 to be considered an adult.

State lawmakers are once again considering whether we should treat 17-year-olds as adults when they commit crimes. 

House Bill 344 may be coming up for a vote in the Texas House of Representatives after a unanimous approvial in the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee. The bill raises the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18. 

“We need to treat kids like kids,” said Jose Flores with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

Flores testified in front of the committee last week in favor of HB 344. He said he speaks about his experience often at commitee hearings even though it isn’t easy to do.

“I do it happily. But at the same time, it brings back things that I went through.”

Flores said he started getting in trouble when he was 13. At 17, he was charged with a felony. 

“As a 17-year-old when you go to county jail, they don’t call anybody for you. It’s up to you to know at least three contact numbers you can call. If you don’t know those numbers, you’re stuck. You get your one phone call and hopefully you get in touch with somebody,” he said.

Flores also added when you’re charged as an adult, easy access to counseling and family involvement end, too. 

He said had he been able to continue in the juvenile justice system. “Things would’ve been a lot different, I believe. I would’ve had a lot more services, more counseling, I wouldn’t be starting off my young adulthood with a felony.”

“Every parent wants to know where their 17-year-old is,” said Representative Rhetta Andrews Bowers. She’s on the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee.

After hearing last week’s testimony on HB 344, she said: “They could be arrested at 17, and they didn’t even have to tell their parents, and I went over that, over and over. I just felt that we have to do right by our children.”

Critics of the proposal say, however, implementing the change is going to be expensive. 

A financial analysis done for the bill found it’ll cost $10 million dollars to start housing more juveniles in the system. A local example it used said Williamson County would have to spend $1.6 million to increase its staffing and operations and $60 million to expand its juvenile facilities. 

But the supporters said other states that raised the criminal responsiblity age to 18 didn’t end up spending as much money as expected. 

They said just one more year of providing counseling and support can make a difference.

“I don’t want to see another Jose go through things I did,” Flores said. “That felony from my 17-year-old still shows up on my record to this day.”

The bill does say for serious/violent crimes, prosecutors and judges can still decide to try them as adults. 

Texas is one of four states that charges 17-year-olds as adults. A similar bill passed the House in 2017, but did not come up for a vote in the Senate. 

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