The Texas Legislature has discussed the idea of raising the age of criminal responsibility during the two most recent sessions. It’s a topic that will be debated this weekend at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. Several proposals would consider treating 17-year-olds as juveniles, rather than adults, for purposes of criminal prosecution and sentencing. That change would align Texas with the majority of the country. Many proponents of such a change cite new research regarding cognitive development and lowered recidivism rates for offenders in the juvenile justice system. And there may be another reason making such a change could benefit the state.
There’s a scene in the 2011 animated film “Puss n Boots,” where Humpty Dumpty realizes he might have to go to prison. It has been criticized for being a not-so-subtle joke about prison rape. In fact, similar jokes appear regularly in the media, from the New York Post to “SpongeBob Squarepants.” And the jokes aren’t just offensive. They speak to a larger issue – how prison rape has been normalized in the minds of many Americans. It’s for that reason that back in 2015, at an NAACP rally, President Barack Obama addressed the issue.
“We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison, we should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We shouldn’t be tolerating rape in prison, and we shouldn’t be making jokes about it popular culture. That’s no joke, these things are unacceptable,” Obama said.
In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. That law allowed the federal government to research the incidence of sexual assaults in prisons. Based on that research, rules were implemented across the country in 2012 to combat the crime, including rules that sought to protect at-risk groups, including prisoners under the age of 18.
But that creates a problem, because in the eyes of the Texas criminal justice system, 17-year-olds are considered adults.
Sgt. Ruthie McCane, the prison rape elimination act coordinator for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department says Texas correctional officers must apply an extra set of rules and protections to those prisoners.
“We have to make sure that we keep them sight and sound from the adult inmates unless they are under direct supervision,” McCane says. “So any time we move them or escort them anywhere there has to be an officer on site to protect them from adult population.”
The Dallas County Sheriff’s Department houses about 60 17-year-olds at any given time. This has required the department to build out an extended area to house them, away from everyone else. It’s an undertaking that is also quite expensive,
McCane says compliance has cost the department more than $3 million extra per year.
Michele Deitch, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, says that for small counties that may only house one or two 17-year-olds at any given time, compliance takes a different form.
“For many of these jails, the only option is to put them into solitary confinement,” Deitch says. “If they’re in solitary confinement they are at high-risk of developing mental health problems. In fact, youth in those situations have a very high risk of suicide and there have been around the county many highly publicized incidents of youth committing suicide in solitary confinement in jails.”
This is particularly concerning in jails, where the accused have yet to be convicted, and are simply waiting for trial.
In the meantime, 17-year-olds in the state of Texas are stuck in limbo between federal regulations and state law.