Bill Pending in Texas Legislature Would Place 17-Year-Olds in the Juvenile, Not Criminal, System

Juvenile Justice DepartmentThe Texas juvenile justice system operates in parallel to the criminal system. It provides a means to deal with unlawful activity by minors, while also recognizing that they are not adults. Under current law, the juvenile justice system’s jurisdiction ends when a person turns 17. A bill that recently passed the Texas House of Representatives, HB 122, would raise this to 18. Supporters of the bill argue that this will better serve both 17-year-olds and the general public.

The purpose of the criminal justice system is a matter of interpretation—to some extent, it is about punishment, and to some extent about rehabilitation. The juvenile justice system’s purpose is not ambiguous at all. Its goals, as defined by the Texas Juvenile Justice Code (JJC), include “remov[ing]…the taint of criminality from children committing certain unlawful acts,” “provid[ing] treatment, training, and rehabilitation,” and “provid[ing] for the care, the protection, and the wholesome moral, mental, and physical development of children.” Tex. Fam. Code §§ 51.01(2)(B), (2)(C), (3).

The JJC currently defines a “child” as anyone who is at least 10 years old but younger than 17 and any 17-year-old who “engaged in delinquent conduct…as a result of acts committed before becoming 17 years of age.” Id. at § 51.02(2). A child may remain subject to the jurisdiction of a juvenile court after turning 17 if they are part of a proceeding that began before that birthday or one that is based on conduct that occurred earlier. Alleged criminal acts committed after their 17th birthday will be subject to the criminal justice system’s jurisdiction. Tex. Pen. Code § 8.07(b).

HB 122 would amend the JJC’s definition of “child” to include anyone who is at least 10 but under the age of 18. It would also include anyone under the age of 20 who allegedly committed an unlawful act while under the age of 18 and who is already subject to a juvenile proceeding. The bill amends various provisions of the JJC, the Texas Penal Code, the Transportation Code, the Education Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and other laws to reflect this change. It would only apply to alleged offenses occurring on or after September 1, 2019, the bill’s effective date.

The bill passed the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee by a vote of five to two, and the full House passed it on April 20, 2017. The House Research Organization’s report on the bill notes arguments made for and against it. Supporters have stated that 44 states and the federal government make 18 the age of criminal responsibility, and current Texas law therefore conflicts with federal law. They also point to benefits in terms of rehabilitation, since most 17-year-olds are still in school and would be better able to continue in school in the juvenile justice system.

Opponents of the bill point to the cost of implementing the changes. They also note that the adult criminal system operates a “youthful offender program” specifically for young defendants and inmates. A key point of dispute between supporters and opponents appears to be whether 17-year-olds, in general, are mature enough to understand the consequences of their actions.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

For more than 20 years, board-certified juvenile defense lawyer Michael J. Brown has advocated for the rights of defendants facing charges in West Texas state and federal courts. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

More Blog Posts:

Expunction Allows the Removal of Some Criminal Information from the Public Record, With an Important Limitation Because of the Internet, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 29, 2015

Proposed Bill in Texas Legislature Would Decriminalize Truancy, Refer Cases to Civil Juvenile Court, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 21, 2015

Federal Government Threatens to Cut Funding for Juvenile Justice Programs, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 19, 2012

Photo credit: Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.