The United States is one of the few western countries to try accused juvenile offenders in an adult court system. A handful of states actually try 16-year-olds as adults. In Texas, a minor is only eligible to be tried as a juvenile if he or she is “under 17 years of age” or under 18 and accused of committing a delinquent act before turning 17.
Supreme Court Clamps Down on Life Sentences for Juveniles
According to a recent report by The Sentencing Project, there are “approximately 2,500 individuals sentenced as juveniles without the possibility of parole” currently imprisoned throughout the United States. Many of these sentences may be reconsidered in the wake of a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, specifically Miller v. Alabama, a 2012 opinion authored by Justice Elena Kagan. In that case, an Alabama court sentenced two 14-year-old defendants to life without parole following their convictions for murder.
The Supreme Court held the sentences were unconstitutional because they failed to take into account the juvenile offenders’ “lessened culpability” and “capacity for change.” Justice Kagan cited scientific evidence that an adolescent’s “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences,” mitigate against “imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.”
Following the Miller decision, a majority of states, including Texas, amended their laws governing juvenile offenders to eliminate mandatory life without parole sentences. However, a minor convicted of murder in Texas still faces a possible maximum sentence of 40 years.
Moving Adulthood Past 18?
But should Texas go further in recognizing the mounting scientific evidence regarding a juvenile’s mental culpability for criminal offenses? As noted above, Texas continues to set a hard cutoff age of 17 for trying a defendant in adult court. But judges in other states are starting to question whether even 18 is too young an age to treat someone as an adult.
In December 2015, an Illinois appeals court, reversed the life without parole sentence of a defendant who was 19 at the time of his crime. The court noted “the designation that after age 18 an individual is a mature adult appears to be somewhat arbitrary.” The court cited scientific studies that show “the brain doesn’t finish developing until the mid-20s, far later than was previously thought” and that “[y]oung adults are more similar to adolescents than fully mature adults in important ways.”
Indeed, a recent Newsweek article discussing the Illinois decision noted that “18 as a threshold for adulthood is already a thing of the past” in other western countries. In Germany, for example, defendants under the age of 21 have long been tried as juveniles. Inspired by the German example, the governor of Connecticut has proposed that state raise its juvenile court cutoff age to 20 and institute “alternative ways to deal with people up to age 25.”
Protecting Your Child Regardless of Age
It is unclear whether Texas officials will join the movement towards increasing the juvenile criminal age anytime soon. This is why if your child is charged with an offense in Houston, Galveston, League City, or the surrounding areas, it is essential you work with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates if you need to speak with a Galveston juvenile crime defense lawyer today.