Houston’s Harris County Sheriff’s Office has run afoul of a federal law aimed at reducing sexual assaults in jails, leaving 17-year-old inmates with virtually no place to go while awaiting trial in adult court, the Houston Chronicle reports. The county’s jail doesn’t have room in its overcrowded facility to carve out a separate space for inmates under 18, who must be housed separately from older inmates under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Efforts to transfer the youthful offenders to other counties have fallen through, officials said. “We’re challenged with the space we have now,” Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman acknowledged.
Jails are facing similar problems across Texas and in six other states, where 17-year-olds are considered adults in the criminal justice system. Federal law and the remaining states consider 18 to be the age of adulthood. While it’s a logistical challenge for Texas jails, experts say it has serious, real-world consequences for youthful offenders. “Seventeen-year-olds are really at risk in adult facilities; it’s not the right place for them,” said Michele Deitch, an expert on Texas jail issues at the University of Texas at Austin. The problem in Harris County has been exacerbated by a spike in the jail’s population in the past year, which has required Hickman at least four times to ship hundreds of inmates to other facilities until they could be transported to Texas prisons.