The age of criminal responsibility in Texas would rise from 17 to 18 under a bill House lawmakers passed this week - a move State Rep. Dustin Burrows and a Lubbock County official say could cost counties millions a year as an unfunded mandate.
House Bill 122, known as the “Raise the Age” bill, would move 17-year-old offenders from the adult criminal justice system to its juvenile justice counterpart starting in 2021.
Advocates say treating 17-year-olds as juveniles makes sense; they say their rehabilitation needs are similar to younger teens in the juvenile justice system and that the move would keep them safe from exploitation by older prisoners. They also argue their recidivism rates would drop.
And transferring the thousands of Texas 17-year-old offenders in the adult prison system to the juvenile justice system would put Texas in compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which prohibits all 17-year-old inmates from being within sight and sound of older prisoners.
The measure passed 92-52, but not without some heated discussion on the House floor ahead of the Thursday vote.
Burrows, R-Lubbock, said raising the age would cost the state millions of dollars and leave counties with an unfunded mandate to take care of more juvenile offenders. State Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr., the bill’s sponsor and a Houston Democrat, pushed back, saying Burrows’ concern is a popular criticism that’s already been debunked.
William Carter, the director of Lubbock County’s Juvenile Justice Center, said he believes it will cost the state about $63 million to implement the law.
A past president of the Juvenile Justice Association of Texas, Carter said Burrows echoed concerns from juvenile justice experts in the state.
“Dustin Burrows was a champion for every juvenile probation department in Texas in his fight against unfunded mandates during yesterday’s house hearing,” he said.
Raising the age of responsibility is a sound concept, Carter said, but advocates of the bill are overlooking the financial burden counties such as Lubbock will bear to house more juveniles.
“With the Legislature proposing cutting state funding to county departments by about 4 percent this upcoming budget cycle, it is important that the state fund the implementation of HB 122 for it to succeed,” he said.
The Lubbock Juvenile Justice Center has about 96 beds split between children and teens in pre- and post- adjudication. On Friday, the center was at about 85 percent capacity, however, the center often reaches maximum capacity. As recently as last week, Carter said, all of the beds at the county’s juvenile justice center were full.
If the Legislature does raise the age of criminal responsibility, he expects a 25 percent intake increase at his center.
“Lubbock County would see an initial $8.3 million impact to construct additional housing units to accommodate the expected growth in population, with an ongoing annual additional cost of around $1.5 million per year thereafter,” he said.
In states that have raised the age, the cost estimates have either been overstated or the state has saved money, Dutton said. Dutton added that concerns about public safety are not warranted because the most heinous offenders could still be tried as adults.
The House bill now heads across the hall to the Senate, where a mirror bill already sits in that chamber’s Criminal Justice Committee. The bill has not had a hearing, and the committee’s chairman, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, told The Texas Tribune he has concerns about raising the age of criminal responsibility.
Texas is one of six states that automatically treats 17-year-olds as adults. The list has shrunk dramatically in the last 10 years.
“What does 2017 and 1918 have in common?” asked Dutton, chairman of the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee. “1918 is when Texas decided to hold 17-year-olds criminally responsible.”
To quell concerns over costs, state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, proposed an amendment that would delay implementation from 2019 to 2021 and charge an advisory committee with issuing a summary of costs and needs associated with raising the age of criminal responsibility. Dutton accepted the amendment.
White’s amendment didn’t move Burrows.
“Let’s figure out what the costs are first” before passing the bill, he told White.