Lawmakers renew debate on long-sought change for when youths become adults in criminal cases
This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
AUSTIN - It started with teasing over Christmas. Lexus'Kiyra Cubero, then 17, remembers being made fun of by the other youths in the Northeast Texas wilderness camp where she lived in foster care.
"They were all going home for the holidays with their family," she recalled Wednesday. "I had no family. I had no place to go ... They made me feel so horrible."
So, she threatened to "hit someone with a stick." For that, she spent 96 days in jail after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of making a terroristic threat and criminal mischief. Eight years later, the Dallas native has been unable to shake that criminal record.
"I wanted to be a nurse practitioner, and I would be working in a hospital right now except for that charge," she said Wednesday as the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee debated a bill that would raise the age at which Texas youths become adults - at least under the state's criminal codes - from 17 to 18. "I'm now 25. I can never be a nurse or the flight attendant that I wanted to be when people see 'terroristic threat' on my record."
Proposed or discussed every two years for the past two decades, the change long has been sought by youth advocates and criminal justice experts as a way to bring Texas in line with most other states that already have made 18 the age of adulthood in criminal justice.
"This would move Texas forward," said committee Chairman Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat and the bill's author. Raising the age to 18, he said, would help reduce costly commitments and allow the state to provide the services to youths that they need instead of sending them to jail or prison.
Lawmakers renew debate on long-sought change for when youths When Dr. Ronald DePinho, right, became president of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in 2011, he began working with renowned researchers such as Professor Emil J. Freireich M.D., left, who cured childhood leukemia more than a half century ago.
Prosecutors would still be able to certify youths charged with serious violent crimes as adults, if a judge agreed.
Following a lengthy hearing on Wednesday, the House committee left House Bill 122 pending for now.
Over in the Senate, John Whitmire, the powerful Houston Democrat who chairs the criminal justice committee and whose opinion carries considerable clout on such matters, rates the proposal's current chances of approval at close to zero.
"When I have juvenile probation directors saying it would inundate their existing programs, and when I look at a juvenile system in this state that is absolutely broken and overwhelmed, and when I see that it costs the state tens of millions of dollars more in a year when we already are short billions of dollars in key programs, I can't see this going anywhere," he said. "If someone had a plan to fix the problems in our juvenile system, and to come up with the money to pay for this change, I might have another opinion."
The cost estimate on Dutton's bill is $35 million, most of it from additional costs to Texas' juvenile justice system due to additional services that would be required for the youths, according to a Legislative Budget Board report issued in January.
Advocates for the change disagree.
As Dutton's bill got its first public hearing Wednesday, a national study showed that other states that thought they would be overwhelmed by raising the adult age to 18 found their concerns over costs were unfounded.
Since 2007, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have raised the age of adulthood to 18. This year, as part of a coordinated national campaign called Raise the Age, the seven remaining states - Texas, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, New York and North Carolina - are being lobbied to join them.
"The seven states ... can move youth from the adult court, jails and prisons into the youth justice system, safe in the knowledge that they can make the change without significantly increasing costs, and keep youth and communities safer," said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a national clearing house on incarceration and its effects.
According to the group's report, states that changed their laws during the past 10 years to absorb 16- and 17-year-olds into their juvenile justice system, did so without significantly increasing taxpayer costs. During those years, the number of youths in the adult corrections system nationwide dropped by nearly half.
Despite the predictions from naysayers, Dutton said those states kept young people safe, enhanced public safety and conserved taxpayer dollars.
"Seventeen-year-olds belong in the juvenile justice system as opposed to the adult criminal justice system," Dutton said. "Texas recognizes in other areas of the law that 17-year-olds are different."
Texans must be 18 to vote, serve on a jury, marry without parental consent and consent to sex - and even older to buy alcohol or get a handgun license.
In Texas, 17-year-olds are considered adults for most criminal charges under a law that has been in place since 1913, when the age was raised from 13 to 17.
In 2015, statistics show that 15,476 17-year-olds were arrested, most for property and drug crimes. Most paid their debts to society in local probation or treatment programs, but some were sent to Texas Juvenile Justice Department lockups.
In all, 271 were in those lockups in 2015, and another 970 were doing time in adult prisons and jails. Most were there for violent or aggravated crimes.
Brett Merfish, a staff attorney for Texas Appleseed, a justice-advocacy group that supports raising the age in Texas, said statistics show that 17-year-olds stand a much better chance of turning their lives around if they are in juvenile programs.
"Raising the Age helps reduce costly commitments, makes communities safer by providing youth with age-appropriate services that gets them back on track, and promotes fairness by helping states and localities develop more effective justice systems," said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a group advocating the change.
Witnesses during Wednesday's House hearing made much the same point. Bexar County District Judge Daphne Previti Austin, who handles juvenile-court cases, said her county supports the bill "so long as it's fully funded." Other judges and county officials present at the hearing echoed that sentiment.
"It really comes down to cost," said state Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, noting the high projected cost of the measure.
For Cubero, the questions about cost were little comfort. In state foster care from the time she was a baby until she turned 18, through more than 20 placements that partly resulted from an array of emotional and behavioral issues, she implored lawmakers to make sure no one else goes to jail as an adult when they are 17.
"They see terroristic threat on my record and assume I tried to blow up the White House," she said, explaining she now works at a delivery service handling packages. "It was something I did when I was 17. I can never get past that."
This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
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Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News