Upping juvenile criminal age to 18 may be Texas non-starter

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Posted: Mar 01, 2015 12:59 PM
Upping juvenile criminal age to 18 may be Texas non-starter

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Jason Wang and Johnny Truong were part of a gang that dressed as utility workers and held a suburban Dallas homeowner at gunpoint, making off with $68,000 in cash, electronics and jewelry before they were eventually caught.

Although both were minors, the law treated them very differently because Wang was 15 and Truong was 17, setting their adult lives on very different courses. Wang went to a juvenile lockup, where he took classes that eventually helped him earn a college scholarship. Troung went to prison, where little effort was spent on trying to turn his life around.

"I felt like I was just a little kid compared to everybody else, and that I wasn't fully mature," Truong said. "There was no concern with rehabilitation."

Since 1918, Texas has charged 17-year-olds as adults, even though they can't vote, join the military or serve on juries. With the state at odds with a federal law governing the housing of juvenile prison inmates and docked about $800,000 in funding last year, some are pushing to raise the age of defendants classed as adults to 18.

There are legislators from both parties who have long been critical of Texas' law, including Democratic state Rep. Abel Herrero, who chaired a bipartisan interim House committee tasked with studying the issue and who supports legislation that would raise the age.

"A 17-year-old could go into a store and could not buy cigarettes, but they could steal the cigarettes and be punished as an adult," Herrero said.

But each party also has its defenders of the current practice of trying 17-year-olds as adults, including Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire. He chairs a committee that would have to advance the legislation before the full Senate could vote on it, and that's unlikely to happen.

"I think at age 17, you should know right from wrong," Whitmire said. "I don't see the need to change."

Many states got more aggressive about treating juvenile offenders as adults amid a jump in youth crime in the 1980s. A subsequent drop in such crime, research into brain development and a series of Supreme Court rulings, though, led many states to have a change of heart.

Today, 41 states automatically treat those younger than 18 who are accused of crimes as juveniles, although judges can decide in certain cases that a minor should be charged as an adult. Seven states, including Texas, charge 17-year-olds as adults, and two — New York and North Carolina — treat those 16 and older as adults under certain circumstances.

Both Wang and Truong believe Texas' age limit should be raised.

Wang, now a 25-year-old business owner, spent three years at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, a border city about 450 miles south of his home in Allen, near Dallas. There, he transformed from a troubled kid to a responsible young adult, and he went on to attend college and get a degree.

Truong, meanwhile, went to prison in 2007 with adult inmates. Relatives sent him books, but he spent his first two years idle. He was released in 2011, finished college in December and is looking for work while living with family in Dallas. Unlike Wang, whose juvenile record was sealed, Truong is saddled with a criminal record.

"Now, I have a finance and accounting degree, but I also have a robbery charge," said Truong, who is now 27.

While Texas youths ages 10 to 16 enter the therapy-rich juvenile system, 17-year-olds are imprisoned in adult facilities designed to punish criminals. Recidivism rates are higher for adults than for juveniles. According to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, youths who were transferred into adult systems had 34 percent more felony re-arrests after age 18 than those detained in youth facilities.

Studies have shown that the human brain doesn't fully develop until age 25. And while juvenile criminal records are often sealed, adult records aren't, making it difficult to find employment and housing.

In a January report, Herrero's committee recommended raising the age, provided that funding can be found in the state budget to implement the changes, including to staffing at courts and detention centers. The report noted that it costs about $50 per day to incarcerate an adult, compared to $367 for a juvenile. Probation is also pricier, at $3 a day for adults compared to $22 a day for juveniles.

Advocates say that moving 17-year-olds to the juvenile system could cost the state more initially, but would save money in the long run in reduced recidivism rates.

Without a law change, county jails may need costly renovations to comply with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires youths to be separated by "sight and sound" from inmates 18 and older. County facilities that don't comply with the act are prohibited from entering into state or federal contracts.

Texas' state facilities don't comply with the act and the state is already being docked. The Legislative Budget Board estimates Texas stands to lose $2.78 million in federal funding in 2016-2017.

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Follow Eva Ruth Moravec on Twitter at https://twitter.com/EvaRuth .