It's that time of the year at the Texas Legislature where everything moves so fast and the politics are so fluid that horse race coverage (what will or won't pass) is basically meaningless. Now is the time for observation and debate on these topics, not speculation and prediction. At this point, soothsaying is beyond the ken of even grizzled professionals when it comes to legislative outcomes. For the most part, for bills moving through the process, nobody really knows what will happen, or can know.
Indeed this time of the legislative session is less like a horse race and more like a rodeo - a danger-filled spectacle ruled by clowns. And as our friends in the rodeo like to say, there's never been a horse that can't be rode, never been a cowboy can't be throwed.
So, when one sees articles like this one from the Texas Tribune's Jonathan Silver depicting the demise of Raise the Age legislation in the senate before it's even had a vote in the House, one may take it with a grain of salt. This sort of coverage too often substitutes for actual reporting on the subject matter being debated and allows politicians to make everything about themselves instead of the issues underlying important legislation.
And to be clear, HB 122, the raise-the-age bill, is important legislation. Most parents of 17-year olds don't yet consider them adults, even if their government does. Texas is one of only six states which still treat 17 year olds as adults for purposes of prosecuting them (though not for purposes of buying cigarettes or alcohol, for example).
Through this debate, we're learning a lot more about the types and scope of juvenile crime. Texas Appleseed recently published a report analyzing arrests by age category to discover the impact of HB 122. They found that arrests of 17-year olds declined every year since 2012, and 87 percent of crimes committed by this cohort were nonviolent offenses - mainly marijuana possession and theft.
Of 17 year olds convicted of drug crimes, only 1.2 percent were for dealing - nearly all of them marijuana. In general, "The rates at which they are arrested along with the offenses for which they are booked resemble the rates and offenses for 16-year-olds; yet their different treatment leads to very different outcomes."
Arrest rates for 17 year olds overall are declining, said the report, from 70 arrests per 1,000 in 2013 to 58 per 1,000 in 2015. Texas arrested more than double the number of 17 year olds in 2008 compared to 2015.
Texas juvenile probation directors are split on the question of raising the age, with Harris County's opposing the bill but others, including in Dallas, more supportive. Nationally, most juvenile-justice professionals consider the lower age inappropriate and lamentable.
Appleseed made an argument which your correspondent has separately made in conversations about the bill: That juvenile reforms since 2007, along with declining juvenile crime, have quite capably set the stage for this reform:
In 2007, the Texas Legislature began a process of restructuring the juvenile justice system, passing the first of several bills and budget initiatives that would move youth out of ineffective and expensive state secure facilities and into community-based alternatives. The process resulted in a 61 percent decrease in juvenile arrests between 2007 & 2015. At the same time, funding was shifted away from state secure facilities and into juvenile probation. A 2015 report published by the Council of State Governments (CSG) showed that per capita funding for juvenile probation departments increased 68 percent between FY 2005 & FY 2012.
The same CSG report concluded that while the news was generally good for Texas reforms – with youth rehabilitated locally showing better outcomes than those committed to state secure facilities – there was room for improvement in recidivism rates by targeting resources and services on youth most likely to reoffend. Specifically, CSG found that the counties the researchers studied failed to “effectively target…[juvenile probation] supervision resources and services on those youth most likely to reoffend.” Instead, counties continued to place youth at low risk of reoffending in services and programs that they didn’t need – likely contributing to higher re-offense rates.
Taken together, the large reduction in arrests, increase in funding for juvenile probation, and findings from CSG showing more opportunity to effectively utilize state taxpayer dollars indicates that Texas’ juvenile system is well-poised to absorb 17-year-olds.That pretty much coincides with my view. In 2007, Grits might have agreed that the state was ill-prepared to make this shift. Today, after a decade of juvie decarceration coupled with double digit declines in juvenile crime, the system seems much more capable of handling an influx of 17 year olds. That's especially true if counties can more “effectively target…supervision resources and services on those youth most likely to reoffend,” which they ought to be doing already, anyway.