LEE: It’s time to reconsider the law that holds 17-year-olds criminally liable as an adult

January 11, 2022

A stained glass window at St. Mary Cathedral Basilica in Galveston depicts one of the Corporal Works of Mercy: "Ransom the captives." (Photo by James Ramos/Herald)

Special Youth Services (SYS) models the embrace of Christ through pastoral care, advocacy and faith sharing in local juvenile justice facilities, including restorative services to at-risk youth, ages 10 to 17, and their families. SYS’s advocacy component prompts us to shed light on laws adversely affecting youth.

In Texas, 17-year-olds are held criminally liable the same as an adult. According to the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, “Texas is one of only three states left to treat these teens as adults for criminal justice purposes — removing their parents from the court process and exposing kids to confinement in adult jails.

Of the 16,000 17-year-olds arrested in Texas in 2019, approximately 95% were arrested for nonviolent and misdemeanor offenses.”

The other two states are Wisconsin and Georgia. An interesting note, Georgia legislation is working to amend the legal age to 18, taking effect in 2023. Currently, a juvenile law gaining traction in Texas is focused on raising the age minimum to 18 for those having contact with the criminal justice system. In the United States, at age 18, a person can vote, join the military, gain employment, acquire housing and make financial decisions based on their needs, but a 17-year-old cannot.

In other words, if a person were to steal a can of soda at 16 years old, they would be placed in the juvenile system. There the teen has access to an abundance of services which include but are not limited to education, mental health, family issue counseling, traumatic impact and physical health needs. From the assessment, prior behavior is also considered, along with maturity and emotional intelligence.

If this same child were to commit the aforementioned crime at 12:01 a.m. on their 17th birthday, the child is then integrated into the adult system with no access to any of the benefits and services specializing in adolescent behavior.

Nor does the 17-year-old have the right to have their parent present for questioning. We must ask ourselves, is this just or fair? I am not so sure.

“Advocates say 17-year-olds should go before juvenile courts, where judges can decide cases while promoting growth without giving them a permanent criminal record,” noted Jeff Amy of the Associated Press.

Of course, if a youth has committed an egregious crime, the juvenile court system can utilize a judicial waiver transferring the child to the adult system.

Adolescence is a fragile time full of new experiences and transitions. Youth engage in adolescent mischief, which does not always end at 17.

At this age, they have one foot in adult responsibility but are children immensely needing guidance navigating that responsibility. If you are unaware of this law and have teenagers, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the laws pertaining to their ages then educate them on proper interactions as well as their rights at school and in public.

I often pray for youth to make educated and responsible decisions while also praying for parents and lawmakers to make decisions allowing youth to benefit from their entire juvenescence. May God always bless His adolescent ones. 

Franchelle Lee is the director of Special Youth Services.