What happens to teenagers who become trapped in the adult justice system for committing just minor offenses?
“I felt like I was losing my mind,” recalls “Leon,” who had been arrested on a marijuana possession charge and was thrown into solitary when he argued with a corrections officer.
Leon lives in Texas, one of three remaining states which still adjudicate youths as young as 16 and 17 (or even younger) in the adult justice system.
Leon was among 11 formerly incarcerated young people whose stories were vividly recounted in a report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC).
The storytellers, who were identified by their first names only, provided compelling evidence of a practice that advocates say does longstanding harm to adolescents.
Shunting young people into adult court and prison “can actually increase the chances that they will commit future, more serious crimes,” according to the TCJC.
Adolescents “are more vulnerable, less culpable, and highly amenable to rehabilitation,” report added. “Prosecuting 17-year-olds in the adult justice system is not only ineffective; it is harmful—to the kids who need positive and age-appropriate redirection, and to society.”
According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, five more states—Louisiana, South Carolina, New York, North Carolina, and Missouri—have enacted legislation raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18 since 2016.
The coalition published the report, entitled “Seventeen in the Adult Justice System,” as part of a campaign to persuade Texas legislators to join the majority of states which have already signed on to the nationwide “raise the age” movement.
Leon, now an adult, was arrested at 17 for possession of a controlled substance, and had his probation revoked because of marijuana. He was subsequently incarcerated for seven-and-a-half years.
During Leon’s incarceration, his little brother was born. Correction officers, following policy, wouldn’t allow him to call home. When his protests became disruptive, he was thrown into solitary confinement for 30 days.
“I came out of the adult system worse than I went in,” he said.
“José,” another ex-incarceree who is now an adult, who was sentenced to five years in prison after committing a second offense as an adolescent, recalls being warned by adult inmates to beware of violence by guards.
“I often think back and wonder how things could have been different for me had I still been considered a juvenile at 17, rather than an adult.”
“I pray that Texas will one day realize that we must treat kids like kids, provide them with more opportunities for rehabilitation, help them address the root causes of their behavior, and stop believing that incarcerating kids is the solution.
When adolescents like Leon and José are prosecuted in the adult justice system, they are blocked from age-appropriate services, the report notes. While confinement can leave prisoners of any age with psychological damage, it can be life-threatening for young adults, says TCJC.
“Kids in adult jails and prisons are far more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted and 36 times more likely to commit suicide than kids in juvenile detention facilities.”
According to Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest justice center, 30 17-year-olds housed in Texas adult prisons in 2017 attempted suicide.
“Jeremiah,” who was 17 when he was sent to adult prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (a baseball bat), recalled he was overcome with suicidal thoughts while in solitary confinement when his parole was denied.
“I had the blade in my hand,” Jeremiah said.
Moreover, when a juvenile is arrested in Texas, there’s no requirement to inform parents, who also do not have a right to be involved in the court process.
“A criminal record follows 17-year-olds for life, creating barriers to education, housing, and employment,” the TCJC report said, arguing that’s why young adults in the system need to be treated with more care and civility.
Some states are considering raising the age higher, to as much as 21 or 25.
New York became one of the most recent states to raise the age, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the second phase of state legislation in October 2018 removing 17-year-olds from the justice system. It has already won praise from advocates and reformers who say it has significantly improved conditions for teens in trouble with the law.
The full Texas report can be accessed here.
This summary was prepared by Andrea Cipriano, a staff writer for The Crime Report.