Brief: Raise the Age

March 13, 2019

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A Catholic perspective:

Under current Texas law, adult criminal responsibility begins at 17 years old; the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB) supports raising this to 18 years. Our position is animated by Catholic Church’s tradition, according to which the punishment of wrongdoers is clearly justified, but not for its own sake.[1] Rather, punishment should restore the order disturbed or destroyed by crime and should aim at having a restorative effect on a criminal.[2]

We are especially mindful of this teaching in cases of younger criminals who, because of their age, are naturally more able to reform their lives. While the actions of the most violent youth gravely damage the common good, civil law should not indiscriminately respond to minors who have committed crimes as though they are all equal to adults who are fully formed in conscience and fully aware of their actions. While grave offenders should be removed from society until they are no longer dangerous, we must recognize that, in many cases, criminal juvenile behavior points to our own negligence in raising children with a respect for life, providing a nurturing and loving environment, or addressing serious mental or emotional illnesses.[3]

Therefore, we recall that:

"Just as God never abandons us, so too we must be in covenant with one another. We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and return or reintegration of all into the community.”[4]

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I.II Q. 87 Art. 3, Reply 3.

[2] Ibid, I.II Q. 87 Art. 1, 6, and 7, Answers.

[3] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. “Sacramental and Historical Heritage.” (Nov. 15, 2000)

[4] Ibid. “Scriptural Foundations.”

We especially care for younger
offenders who, because of their age,
are naturally more able to reform
their lives.

Texas law and policy:

Texas law phases in responsibility for the commission of crimes: before age 10, children can only be prosecuted for or convicted of perjury and traffic violations.[5] By age 14, children can also be held accountable for low-level misdemeanors, violations of local government ordinances, and severe felonies.[6] However, before age 17 individuals cannot be prosecuted for severe felonies unless juvenile courts certify the individual as an adult and waive their jurisdiction.[7] A juvenile court may certify children 14 and older as an adult if the seriousness of the alleged offense or the background of the child indicate that the welfare of the community requires criminal proceedings.[8] By age 17, a person is no longer a child in the eyes of Texas law and may be held accountable for any offense.[9]

As Table 1 (above) illustrates, half of offenses leading to the arrest of 17-year-olds in 2017 were for possession of marijuana, theft, assault, violation of liquor laws, and drunkenness. Except for assault, a review of these most common offenses leads to the conclusion that the majority of crimes for which 17-year-olds are arrested are lower-level misdemeanors. Raising the age of criminal responsibility would not endanger the people of Texas nor the common good of our state, but it would allow all 17-year-old offenders to have access to juvenile rehabilitative services by default.[10] Nevertheless, raising the age of responsibility to 18 would not—and should not—affect the ability of a juvenile court to certify a child as an adult if the seriousness of their offense or their background indicate that the welfare of the community requires criminal proceedings.

Key bill summary:

HB 344: This bill would raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 years old. The TCCB supports this bill to ensure that minors are not punished under the adult justice system.

[5] Penal Code § 8.07. However, it must be shown that a child understands the nature of an oath.

[6] Penal Code § 8.07. Includes capital, first-degree, and aggravated controlled substance felonies.

[7] Id.

[8] Juvenile Justice Code § 54.02(a). Specifically, juvenile courts may waive jurisdiction for children over 13 for alleged capital felonies, aggravated controlled substance felony, or first degree felonies, and for children over 14 for alleged second or third degree felonies or state jail felonies. Nonetheless, no person can receive capital punishment for an offense committed before age 18.

[9] Juvenile Justice Code § 51.02.

[10] Raise the Age Coalition, 17-Year-Olds in the Criminal Justice System (April 2017). 23.

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