A Child in Every Way but One: Raising the Age of Criminal Responsibility in Texas

Abstract

At age 18, the federal government considers an individual an adult, and thus eligible to vote, sit on a jury, join the military, buy a cigarette, and serve time in an adult prison. The state of Texas follows similar policies, except in one respect. Texas sets the age of criminal responsibility, or the age at which one is considered an adult and eligible to be tried in criminal court, at seventeen. The state of Texas considers seventeen-year-olds mature enough to serve time in prison, but not mature enough to vote for the judges that may send them there. Over the past several years, there have been multiple attempts to raise the age of criminal responsibility from seventeen to eighteen. They have all failed. Those opposed to raising the age argue that the change will be too costly, that the current system is adequately serving both juvenile and adult offenders, and that such a change would be a threat to public safety. However, a case study of similar policy changes in the state of Illinois shows the exact opposite. After examining existing literature and data gathered following the state of Illinois’ recent law raising the age of criminal responsibility to eighteen, I will argue that Texas’ current policy is not only harmful to seventeen-year-olds incarcerated in adult prisons, but that the proposed policy change will also save money, improve public safety, and better serve both juvenile and adult offenders. I will then provide four policy recommendations to the Texas legislature: (1) raise the age of criminal responsibility to eighteen, (2) form a task force to recommend best practices for transition, (3) delay implementation for 2 years to allow time for transition preparation, and (4) create a matching grant program to fund the transition and ongoing costs.

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