By DAVID A. DÍAZ
March 20, 2014 at 6:54pm
Major issues affecting juvenile justice in Texas, including protecting the rights of juries to have more options in the punishment and rehabilitation of 17-year-olds accused of serious felonies, will be taken up in Austin on Tuesday, March 25, Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, has announced.
Canales is the only Valley lawmaker on the nine-member House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi.
That legislative panel will hear from expert witnesses, as well as allow verbal and written testimony from any Texan, when the lawmakers meet at the State Capitol, beginning at 10:30 a.m., to study the classification of 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system of Texas.
The meeting, which is open to the public, will be held in Room E2-016 in underground annex of the Texas Capitol.
“Serious concerns nationwide and in Texas have been raised regarding whether placing 17-year-olds, who are still not adults, under the control of the adult criminal justice system, where they are more likely to become hardened criminals, and where they are more vulnerable to physical and sexual assaults than in juvenile justice facilities,” said Canales.
In Texas, public hearings by House and Senate committees provide opportunities for every Texas resident to help shape proposed state laws and policies for action by the full Legislature when it returns back to work. The Legislature will begin its five-month regular session in January 2015.
“Now is the time for Texans to begin to learn the legislative process, when they have more time to better understand and participate in how a bill becomes law,” said Canales. “My staff and I are ready and able to help our constituents, through the upcoming work of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, to help them make the legislative system work for them.”
The public hearing – one of several that will be held throughout the year by the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee – will also be broadcast live and videotaped for later review on the House of Representatives’ website.
For access to the March 25 hearing by the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, individuals may log on to:www.house.state.tx.us/video-audio/broadcast-schedule/
Also, the clerk of that committee – Vanessa Fuentes – may be reached in Austin at (512) 463-0768, or Canales’ Capitol Office, led by Curtis Smith, may be reached at (512) 463-0426 for more information on viewing the public hearing, submitting written testimony before or after the hearing, or for any other background materials relating to the public hearing.
Among the issues facing the committee, along with a summary prepared by the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, are:
• Raising the Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction
Texas is one of only 10 states in the U.S. that treats youth under age 18 as adults in the criminal justice system. All 17-year-olds arrested in Texas, including misdemeanors, are automatically sent through the adult system, regardless of the severity of their alleged offense, their maturity level, their personal or criminal history, or other mitigating factors.
Like other youth, 17-year-olds are typically arrested for non-violent, minor offenses. The overwhelming majority of arrested 17-year olds are misdemeanors. Projections suggest that if 17-year-olds are added to the juvenile system over 85% of the dispositions will be for county non-residential probation, and the overwhelming majority will be misdemeanors. The primary crimes for which they are arrested are: larceny theft, drug possession, misdemeanor assault, disorderly conduct, and violation of underage liquor laws.
• Assessing Juvenile Capital Sentencing After SB 2
Senate Bill 2, passed in 2013 to respond to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, provides that juveniles convicted of capital murder receive a mandatory life sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
However, this new Texas law may still be subject to legal challenge on the grounds that it limits judges’ and juries’ ability to take account of mitigating circumstances in sentencing decisions, may not provide youth a meaningful opportunity for release, and does not address retroactive application.
Scientific research indicates that juveniles’ brains are still developing in ways that affect their impulse control, ability to appreciate long-term consequences, and susceptibility to peer pressure. Their characters are still forming so they can respond well to rehabilitation.
• Ensuring Meaningful Review of Certification Decisions
Under the Texas Family Code § 54.02, a juvenile judge has the discretion to waive jurisdiction and transfer a youth, in some cases as young as 14, to adult criminal court for any felony offense. This process is also known as certification to criminal court or waiver of juvenile court jurisdiction. Juveniles who are certified as adults can receive the entire range of sanctions for adult offenders under the Penal Code, except for the death penalty and life without parole. In Texas, approximately 200 juveniles are certified every year.
Under current law, it is highly difficult and unlikely for a juvenile to appeal a certification decision, even though this decision is a fundamental stage in the criminal process. As a result, juvenile defendants may spend years in adult facilities, where the risk of physical and sexual abuse is much higher than in juvenile facilities.