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​Why Is Texas Still Sending 17-Year-Olds to Adult Prisons?

Reformers argue that treating 17-year-olds differently from younger teens leads to higher sexual abuse and suicide rates, as well as costing the state money.
July 30, 2015, 5:19pm

The Harris County Juvenile Justice Center in Houston, Texas. Photo via Flickr user Roy Luck

On the morning of March 26, 2005, Jason Wang and two other teenagers, all disguised as utility workers, left a Mesquite, Texas, home with a safe containing nearly $70,000 in stolen cash and valuables. Having tied the family up at gunpoint inside, the three teens took a car parked in the garage and sped off to a rendezvous point nearby, where a getaway ride waited.

The house belonged to the owners of a nail salon in town, and the thieves had known there was plenty of cash inside, along with jewelry and electronics, Wang told me recently. But even with meticulous planning, which included scoping out the neighborhood a year prior, missteps during the getaway led to the gang's arrest.

When they were eventually charged with armed robbery, the friends faced divergent fates in Texas's sprawling criminal justice system. Wang, who was 15 and considered a juvenile at the time, now has an MBA and owns two businesses––success he attributes to the rehabilitative programs offered in Texas's juvenile system that helped reshape his life. But an accomplice who was 17 and automatically charged as an adult wasn't afforded the same benefits, and now struggles with a blighted criminal record, Wang said.

"The thing about juvenile facilities is that they are heavily geared towards rehabilitating juvenile offenders," Wang told VICE. "They have programming, staff, facilities that are all around the idea of housing kids [under the age of 19]." But unlike the juvenile system, Wang said, adult prisons lack enforced rehabilitative and educational programs, as well as safety measures for minors housed there.

"The adult system is kind of a warehouse for human bodies, and they don't offer as many opportunities to succeed after you're released," Wang added.

Since 1918, Texas has prosecuted 17-year-olds—including those who commit misdemeanors—as adults, cramming them into a prison-industrial system bereft of the rehabilitative programs that have put Texas's juvenile system on the national radar for its effectiveness and progressive bent. But activists and some lawmakers argue the practice of treating teens as adults runs counter to the latest research showing that incarcerating youth in adult facilities puts them at a much greater risk to sexual abuse and suicide, results in higher recidivism rates, and costs the state unnecessary money––all problems that will continue so long as the state considers 17 the criminal age of responsibility.

"Texas is basically demonstrating the problems of having this inefficient system that treats 17-year-olds as their own class—they're neither adults, nor are they children," said Elizabeth Henneke, a policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit that supported legislation to raise the age, which failed in the state's legislature this spring.

As Texas has reshaped its juvenile justice system in recent years, advocates and lawmakers have pushed to raise the adult criminal age to 18 and end what they see as a regressive policy in an otherwise forward-thinking state. According to Lauren Rose, a juvenile justice policy associate at the advocacy group Texans Care for Children, the continued practice in Texas has broad implications nationally.

"Often time, advocates in other states will tell their legislators, 'Texas has done this, how can we not be doing this?'" she said. "This is one of those issues where I think we're the outlier in the other direction."

Texas is one of just nine states in the US to prosecute 17-year-olds as adults, but it's part of a shrinking minority. In recent years, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Mississippi, and Connecticut have all enacted legislation to treat most or all of those accused of crimes under 18 as juveniles. (New York and North Carolina treat 16-year-olds as adults, though a proposal in New York this legislative session sought to change the state's law.)

Related: What Happens When You Build a Town Around a Prison?

On top of moral concerns about incarcerating 17-year-olds as adults, there can be financial implications. Since 2003, the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which protects prisoners under 18 by separating them "sight and sound" from older populations, has put strains on prisons forced to house 17-year-olds separately. In addition to renovation costs, facilities out of compliance face penalties that can cut into their bottom lines––one reason why many sheriffs in Texas support raising the age.

Over the years, the Lone Star state has been in and out of compliance with PREA, and in May, Governor Greg Abbott wrote to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch promising that the state would comply "wherever feasible." But last year, Texas was docked over $800,000 in federal funding, and between 2016 and 2017, noncompliance could cost it $2.78 million in federal grants, according to Legislative Budget Board estimates.

Still, opponents of age reform say that the state is ill-equipped as is to handle an influx of 17-year-olds into its pricey juvenile system. According to a January Texas State House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence report, incarcerating adults costs around $50 per day, while juveniles cost $367. Probation costs $3 per day for adults and $22 for juveniles.

"Eighty percent of the counties in Texas don't have juvenile holding facilities," A.J. Louderback, president of Texas's Sheriff's Association, told the Houston Chronicle in December. "This is not a minor thing. It would affect a lot of counties financially."

In 2014, 500 17-year-olds were sent to prisons across Texas, and 7,600 were placed on probation, according to Legislative Budget Board numbers. The office estimates that sending them through juvenile courts would have cost the state $16 million of its more than $200 billion budget for the next year, and $57 million by 2020.

County officials, whose juvenile justice budgets are largely internal, have voiced concern over runaway costs as well. Officials in Harris County, which houses some of the nation's largest prisons, predicted that the price of new juvenile facilities and courts would approach $70 million, while they would only save $6 million from housing fewer juveniles by 2020.

But reformers contend that counties already spend unnecessarily on housing 17-year-olds separately. "Dallas is spending almost $80,000 a week just to separate their 17-year-old population from their 18-year-old population," explained Henneke. Moreover, she argued, transfer costs are difficult to predict, and spending more upfront could save taxpayers money in the long run.

"The increase isn't going to be as drastic as some people expect," she said.

The January Committee report notes that most 17-year-olds in Texas are arrested for nonviolent offenses that would not necessarily require lock-up in the juvenile system, and with declining juvenile and 17-year-old arrest numbers, financial concerns could be overblown. "Our juvenile crime rate is dropping," Rose said, "so it's something that our system can absolutely handle."

If most 17-year-olds are locked up for nonviolent crimes, Wang's case is an outlier—albeit one that in its extremity highlights the tangible benefits for those who go through the juvenile system. When youths are ferried successfully through rehabilitative programs, they become "taxpayers rather than burdens on taxpayers," according to the report, which estimates that each successful rehabilitation case could ultimately save taxpayers between $1.7 and $2.3 million.

Though raise-the-age legislation failed, two other initiatives halting truancy prosecution and sending juveniles to facilities closer to home passed recently. Those bills were championed by one of the state's leading juvenile justice reformers, State Senator John Whitmire, who curiously nixed the raise-the-age amendment from the final bill.

When I called his office to ask why he had opposed the measure, a spokesman referred me to a quote he gave the Chronicle recently, explaining his philosophical stance that 17-year-olds should be treated as adults. "I think at 17 you should know right from wrong," he told the paper, explaining the dangers of putting potentially violent adults with children.

Advocates remain adamant that the reform is necessary, and are hopeful that the next legislative session will bring change. "We want to treat kids as kids," State Representative Gene Wu, who co-authored the amendment, said after the May vote. "We want them to have a chance to make mistakes, to learn and grow from it, and not be saddled with something that affects their lives from then on."

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