Texas’ large, rural youth prisons are in dire need of reform − this year alone, reports of gang violence, fights, and top level firings of juvenile justice officials have filled the news. Before the last legislative session ended, legislators put aside $90 million to increase salaries in the hopes of retaining employees, as correctional staff have continued to quit in what has been called a mass exodus.
While lawmakers were able to allocate money for staffing, the session unfortunately ended with relevant bills still on the table despite a clear need for them. The bills under consideration included the “Second Look” bill, which would have shortened the time before parole eligibility for individuals who were children when they were convicted, and the “Raise the Age” bill, which would have changed the law of criminal responsibility — the age at which individuals are treated as adults — from 17 to 18. Failing to pass these bills was a huge missed opportunity, one that will have to wait until 2021 to be revisited.
Michigan is close to passing its own version of raise-the-age legislation this session. If this occurs, Texas will be one of just three states left that still automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults. Seventeen-year-olds are not adults — not under any other area of the law. We don’t let 17-year-olds vote, buy guns, serve in our military or have any of the other rights and responsibilities that come with adulthood. Yet no matter how minor the offense, in Texas, we prosecute them as adults.
Sen. John Whitmire has called these children “capital murderers, sex offenders and rapists,” but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most juveniles in the Texas system are not there for violent crimes. In fact, according to 2017 data, 95 percent of the 17-year-olds arrested in Texas were behind bars for nonviolent offenses. And yet, all of them ended up in the adult system.
When children are prosecuted and held in the adult system, they don’t receive services geared toward youth. Their parents cannot be involved in their judicial proceedings. They miss out on educational opportunities. And their mental health suffers, as they are either housed with adults — where they are often unsafe — or isolated in de facto solitary confinement. As a result, children in adult facilities are far more likely to commit suicide than those held in juvenile facilities.
Children in the adult system also leave with an adult criminal record, one that will follow them for the rest of their lives. This record makes it harder for them to obtain employment, educational opportunities and housing which, in turn, leads to a greater likelihood they will return to crime.
Children in the juvenile system can flourish as adults — as long as we give them every opportunity to reform. The newest problems in Texas’ youth prisons should be our wake-up call. All the research we have suggests that, first and foremost, we should keep children in the juvenile system — a system created to respond to their unique needs. Next, to improve public safety, we should close large youth prisons like Gainesville and favor facilities that are small and close to home.
Sen. Whitmire and the rest of the Criminal Justice Committee missed a chance to improve the lives of youths in Texas. Until legislation is passed, Texas’ children will continue to pay the price.
Image credit: Jan H Andersen