TEXAS – You have to be 18 to vote, join the military or even get married without permission from your parents. But in Texas, 17-year-olds are treated as adults when they commit crimes.
- New “age of responsibility” report to be released Tuesday
- Texas one of five states where 17-year-olds go to adult prison
- Texas Criminal Justice Coalition to release new report Tuesday
Texas is one of only four states in the country to still do so. Advocates for 'raising the age' have unsuccessfully lobbied lawmakers for years, but now they're hoping the message from affected teens will resonate.
As a teen, the now 39-year-old Jose Flores said he fell in with the wrong crowd. At the age of 17, he was arrested for stealing a car.
"When the Houston Police Department arrested me and put me in a car, and took me to this big beast of a building, even though I may have looked a little older, inside and especially in my head, I was still a kid," said Flores.
Only three months after being released he was booked again for substance abuse-related charges and sentenced to five years in prison.
"I was with the big boys now I guess, you know?" said Flores.
He said at the age of 17 and in the adult system, easy access to counseling and family involvement didn't exist.
According to a new report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, teens placed in youth facilities are 34 percent less likely to become a repeat offender than those placed in the adult system.
"These kids are not only more likely to recidivate if they stay in the adult system, but they're also at a much greater risk of mental health issues, suicide, physical and sexual assault," said Michelle Dietch with the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
But for four sessions, state lawmakers have failed to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18. Critics have argued it would add increased costs to the juvenile justice system.
For Flores, it’s about saving other teens from a life like his; teens like the ones he's helping now.
"It breaks my heart to see these kids there in an adult prison wearing a white uniform that I used to wear," said Flores.
Raising the age from 17 to 18 would mean starting 17-year-olds off in the youth justice system, but gives judges the discretion to transfer kids with the most serious offenses.
Click the video link above to watch our interview with Lindsey Linder, senior policy attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the author of the report.