Kids will be kids : raising the age of criminal responsibility in Texas

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2016-08

Authors

Gandy, Rachel Phillips

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Abstract

The federal government draws the boundary between childhood and adulthood at age 18 for activities such as casting a ballot, joining the military, buying a cigarette, and serving time in adult prisons. Texas, however, defies this guideline in one significant respect. Here, the age of criminal responsibility is 17 years old. Thus, Texas lawmakers consider 17-year-olds mature enough to serve time in adult prisons but too immature to sit on the juries that send them there. The departure of Texas statute from federal policies ignores the science of brain development and contradicts cost-benefit analyses. Most importantly, the Texas law jeopardizes the lives of vulnerable youth and fails to improve public safety within local communities. Though the vast majority of arrested 17-year-olds commit minor crimes, the consequences of an adult conviction are far from minor. This report examines the impacts of treating 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Impacts include higher risks of physical and sexual victimization, psychological trauma, developmental delays, and long-run economic losses. Together, these effects reach far beyond a teenager’s stay in prison to inflict damage across families, communities, and generations of Texans. Fortunately, there is a better way to manage 17-year-olds who are highly susceptible to the negative impacts of incarceration. In recent years, several states raised their ages of criminal responsibility to divert teens away from the dangers of adult correctional facilities. These states then experienced three levels of benefits: 1. Micro-level improvements to each teenager’s neurological and psychosocial development; 2. Mezzo-level public safety advantages; and 3. Macro-level increases to state and county coffers. This report analyzes the benefits that teens, communities, and budgets could accrue by aligning Texas’ age of criminal responsibility with federal standards. Finally, the report outlines practical recommendations for raising the age of criminal responsibility in Texas. Only then will vulnerable 17-year-olds receive the protection and opportunities that they require to become productive community residents.

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