Posted: Mar 25, 2014 1:04 PM
Updated: Mar 25, 2014 1:04 PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Texas should stop automatically treating 17-year-olds as adults when they enter the criminal justice system, experts and judges told lawmakers Tuesday.
Texas is among only 10 states that treat people younger than 18 as adults, and has treated 17-year-olds as adults since 1918. Texas lawmakers are reviewing the policy ahead of next year's legislative session.
Michele Dietch, a professor at the LBJ School for Public Affairs, said research has proven teenage brains are not fully developed and young offenders need special services not available in adult prisons.
"Teenagers struggle with poor decision-making and poor impulse control," she told the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. "Youths' characters and personalities are still developing."
She said other states that still treat juveniles as adults are changing their laws, and Texas is an outlier nationally and internationally. She noted that juveniles are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in adult prisons than juvenile justice facilities.
Judge Laura Parker, who oversees a juvenile court in San Antonio, said 80 percent of the cases she hears are misdemeanors. She supports changing the law.
"You have low-level offenders ending up in the adult system," she said. "Adult probation is very, very difficult. ... The adult probation system doesn't hold their hand in the same way, it doesn't include the family."
No one testified in favor of maintaining the current law, but victims' rights groups worry that teenagers who commit serious crimes might not face serious punishment.
Riley Shaw, an assistant district attorney who handles juvenile cases in Tarrant County, said he supports raising the age but said it would require an overhaul of all criminal justice laws, retraining probation officers, and more money for rehabilitation and probation programs.
"The problems I see are on the implementation side," he said. "You need to take your time if you're going to make this kind of change."
The Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee will meet in the afternoon to study how the juvenile detention system is operating. Lawmakers recently moved to shut down most of the state's juvenile detention centers, but the state is still struggling with how to deal with those suffering from severe behavioral problems.
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