The average Texan might well question the need to raise the age at which one can be criminally tried as an adult in Texas from 17 to 18, especially given that doing so might significantly overwhelm the juvenile justice system and raise county expenses. And, after all, 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds alike get into trouble. What’s the big difference?

Champions of legislation to raise the criminal age to 18 say Texas’ juvenile justice system is simply more oriented toward rehabilitating the impressionable minds of wayward kids than prison is. And by removing adult criminal classification for 17-year-olds in Texas — thus aligning us with most of the nation — more troubled youths can benefit from the system’s potential to reshape attitudes and redirect young lives. It means parents would have more impact.

This not only benefits Texas families but could save states and counties more money long term by keeping youths out of adult prisons later in life.

Adult lockup

Once teenagers go into adult lockup, the chance of turning their lives around gets more difficult. Elizabeth Henneke, policy attorney of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, told the Texas House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues last week that youths are 34 percent more likely to re-offend if they go into the adult criminal justice system than juvenile justice system programs.

“We’re talking about kids,” she said. “Where do we want them? What role do we want parents to play when their 17-year-old children in high school are arrested? Do we want to give them hope that they can be rehabilitated?”

Henneke says 96 percent of 17-year-olds arrested are collared for nonviolent crimes. Do we want to flush them into Texas’ adult criminal correctional cycle when far more hope exists through youth-oriented rehabilitation programs and structured probation? There is a reason why Committee Chairman Harold Dutton calls any felony conviction a life sentence.

The most compelling witness to address the committee last week was Demetrius Greer, of Waco, offering the perspective of one who, upon conviction for attempted murder, spent three years in the Texas Youth Commission — and then, at age 17, was deemed an adult and sent to prison to complete his sentence. The difference, he said, was jarring.

“The time I was in TYC, we had house parents and, if anything went wrong, we could talk to them,” he said. “We were treated like humans. Once I was transferred to (Texas Department of Corrections), I was — (it was) to each his own. If I had gone directly from the streets to prison, I believe I would’ve been more barbaric, but by me going through the process of TYC, I was able to understand why I did what I did.”

Time to rehabilitate

Greer said his time in TYC helped him survive: “It actually gave me a lot of coping skills. I was able to avoid getting into a lot of conflicts.”

Besides allowing the juvenile justice system more time to rehabilitate youngsters, raising the age would help youths to make something of their lives. Juvenile criminal records are very often sealed; those for adult criminals (now as young as 17) are not, confounding matters when these individuals, freed from incarceration, seek jobs and housing.

County officials are right to express concern that this legislation, if approved, could burden local juvenile justice programs, forcing everything from hiring more staff to possibly building more juvenile detention facilities. While state lawmakers pushing this age change are to be commended, they need to back up the talk and ensure cash-strapped counties aren’t hit with all the bills and that the juvenile justice system has reasonable time to prepare for a reportedly large infusion of youths.

Which is why we question the billions in state tax cuts proposed at this juncture. Are young lives not as important as our state leaders so often claim? We’ll see.