The Dallas Morning News has a good article up profiling how the Texas Legislature may be about to kill the infant bill that would raise the age of majority – the age at which a person can be tried for a crime in the adult system rather than the juvenile system – from 17 to 18 years old. The idea to raise the age to 18 has been kicking around for a while and has enjoyed support on both sides of the aisle. But some are (wrong-headedly, in my opinion) defending the lower age threshold, including Democratic Senator John Whitmire (who chairs a committee that would have to advance the legislation before a full Senate could vote on it… according to the DMN, that’s unlikely). 

This is just petty “tough on crime” nonsense. Sen. Whitmire argues that at 17 years old a person should know right from wrong. Maybe. But knowing right from wrong is the standard on whether a person is sane or insane. We don’t handle juvenile cases in the juvenile system because kids are legally insane, but because we understand kids are still developing and, well, kids do stupid things they just wouldn’t do in another few years. Why is that? Well, progressing research in brain development tells us that that’s because, while their bodies may start to look similar to adults, teenagers’ brains have a long way to go. For one, their perception of risk versus reward is totally different from an adult, making a teenager much more willing to take risks and much less likely to fully understand the downside. The law across the nation is changing to reflect this new scientific understanding (I call it new, but common sense has always told us that 17 year olds aren’t fully mature). Federal law like the Rape Elimination Act require 17 year olds to be fully segregated from adults. A series of US Supreme Court cases signals a change sweeping change is occurring. 

But alas, Texas is caught behind the times. Check out the DMN article; it has a practical example of why the current status of the law is wrong-headed. Two kids commit a crime, one is 15 and one is 17. The 15 year old goes to juvie and is able to change his life (because juvie treats kids as redeemable and tries to rehabilitate them). The 17 year old goes to prison and is forever marred by his criminal record. The older guy has gone on to get advanced degrees and really change himself, but that record continues to haunt him. Is this huge difference fair when it all hangs on the difference between 15 and 17?

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