A decade ago, Jason Wang, then 15, of Texas, was charged with armed robbery along with two other teens. He went to a juvenile prison but ended up with an MBA and owns two businesses, success he attributes to the rehabilitative programs offered in Texas’s juvenile system that helped reshape his life. An accomplice who was 17 and automatically charged as an adult wasn’t afforded the same benefits, and now struggles with a blighted criminal record, Wang told VICE. “The adult system is kind of a warehouse for human bodies, and they don’t offer as many opportunities to succeed after you’re released,” he said. Since 1918, Texas has prosecuted 17-year-olds as adults, cramming them into a prison-industrial system bereft of the rehabilitative programs that have put Texas’s juvenile system on the national radar for its effectiveness and progressive bent.
Activists and some lawmakers argue the practice of treating teens as adults runs counter to research showing that incarcerating youth in adult facilities puts them at a much greater risk to sexual abuse and suicide, results in higher recidivism rates, and costs the state unnecessary money––all problems that will continue so long as the state considers 17 the criminal age of responsibility. “Texas is basically demonstrating the problems of having this inefficient system that treats 17-year-olds as their own class—they’re neither adults, nor are they children,” said Elizabeth Henneke of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit that supported legislation to raise the age, which failed in the legislature this spring. As Texas has reshaped its juvenile justice system, advocates and lawmakers have pushed to raise the adult criminal age to 18 and end what they see as a regressive policy in an otherwise forward-thinking state. Texas is one of just nine states to prosecute 17-year-olds as adults, but it’s part of a shrinking minority. In recent years, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Mississippi and Connecticut have enacted legislation to treat most or all of those accused of crimes under 18 as juveniles.