Will Texas Raise the Age of Criminal Responsibility?
The raise the age debate has long been a hot topic in Texas. Actually it’s been a hot topic for the entire country, but Texas might be making a move on the subject. Many states in the last ten years have stopped considering 17 year olds as adults in the courts, and try them as juveniles. Now that’s not a matter of fact, Certainly in Texas, where if one commits a capital murder, a judge is free to decide to try the offender as an adult. The history of trying juveniles as adults is an interesting topic that dates all the way back to the beginning of our nation. We’ll first take a look at the history just to give a brief overview of the subject as a whole. To get your context, if you will. Then we’ll look at some recent happening in respect to criminal responsibility.
History of trying children
In the infancy of our country, we didn’t distinguish the difference between children and adult in the courts at all. There were children as young as the age of seven being tried in criminal courts back then. Fast forward a bit to the late 19th century, where psychology was a fresh scientific enterprise still making a name for itself. As psychologists came around to the notion of adolescence, a group of reformists began to emerge. This group of reformists wanted to see children removed from adult prisons. Named The Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, this group was among the first to make any move towards removing children from adult prison. They founded the New York House of Refuge, where they fought to educate and instill moral values into the delinquent juveniles. This was one of the first of it’s kind to assist juveniles and support them through the courts. Many soon followed this example. The first juvenile court was established in Cook County, Illinois in 1899. The goal of the juvenile court became just the opposite of that of the adult criminal court, not to prosecute the offender, but to support the juveniles and ultimately rehabilitate. By 1925, 48 states had established a juvenile court system.
Now here we are in the early to mid 20th century, and it seems as if just about everyone has jumped on the “no children in adult prison” bandwagon. Then another debate arose in the 60’s, though by this time children were separated. People argued that they were doing no more than just that; segregating the juveniles. The whole idea of the juvenile court system was to pretty much bypass normal judicial procedure, and waive the rights of trial, in order to get the juveniles delinquent the help and attention he or she needs in order to rehabilitate. Children back then were deprived of the normal rights an adult receives, speedy and public trial, trial by jury, etc. but it soon came to the attention of the country, that children have been stripped of their natural rights and receive no help, “that he gets neither the protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children” wrote
Abe Fortas. Eventually the movement made its way to the supreme court, where a series of supreme court decisions declared that children needed just the same rights as adults in criminal cases.
In 1974, Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and to this day that is what governs our juvenile systems. Though it has been amended many times of course, even as recently as 2018. Soon to be amended to actually house them in completely separate facilities, this act required the separation of children from adult prisoners. There were special cases where a juvenile could be placed in an adult prison, like capital murder, but for the most part juveniles were housed separately. Through this program, states were offered grants that were aimed at starting community based correctional-facilities, such as halfway houses.
The curve ball
You may have guessed at this point what’s coming next. If you haven’t I’m about to throw a curveball at you. The nation as a whole at this point seems to be on the same page. We’re housing children in separately facilities and trying them as juveniles, with few exceptions. yet, here come the 90’s where violent crime rates started rising dramatically. Some states slowly started moving back towards strict criminal policies through the 90’s, blaming these rising crime rate statistics. The trend quickly became harsh punishment was to be imposed upon youthful criminals; states soon started making laws that made it easier to try children as adults. This approach lasted a couple of decades, Texas being one of the last few states that still hold this approach. But guess what, the tides are changing again. Let’s take a closer look at HB 344.
House Bill 344
House Bill 344, filed on November 13, 2018 is what is expected to change the age of criminal responsibility once and for all. Though, if history teaches us anything, it’s that the opinion of the nation will likely change again on the subject. But in the meantime House Bill 344 has been making some progress, making a unanimous decision in the
Juvenile Justice & Family Issues committee. Now that doesn’t mean it’s being passed into law, there’s many more steps in between now and then. But this law would stop the courts from charging juveniles as adults. Currently, the way the system is setup, is that children at the age of 17 are automatically charged as an adult for any crimes they commit in Texas. If passed, the bill would mean 17 year olds would start being charged as juveniles rather than adults.