Adult prisons are no place for youths

Photo by Jennifer Whitney

When babies are born, hospitals do not provide a “how to” manual to accompany the new bundles of joy. Years later, it’s sobering to learn you have no control over their actions when they are out of your sight.

That’s where PTA comes in — as an official “parent guide” from diapers to dorm rooms. The foundation for PTA is family engagement. PTA teaches moms and dads how to become effective parents without becoming “helicopters.” From the parental viewpoint, it’s about making choices and balancing good direction and guidance with just enough liberation for children to learn to flap their own wings. Children gradually need parents less and less and want freedom more and more. No matter what our early childhood discipline strategies and unconditional love, our children — for a variety of reasons, —sometimes fall short.

In some cases, children make bad choices by stealing something or experimenting with drugs or alcohol, a couple of the most common reasons 17-year-olds are arrested. When that happens, they must face the consequences.

But the consequences for this behavior should not be delivered within the adult criminal justice system. Seventeen-year-olds are not adults. Their behavior should be handled in the juvenile justice system where their parents can be engaged in the process and where the approach is more rehabilitative than punitive.

For that to happen, legislators must pass legislation by Democratic state Reps. Harold Dutton and Gene Wu of Houston and Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, to hold 17-year-olds accountable in the juvenile justice system, while maintaining the option to certify 17-year-olds as adults when deemed appropriate.

There are so many problems with treating 17-year-olds as adults. These kids, juniors and seniors in high school, enter the adult system regardless of how minor the offense is. Without the passage of legislation the state leaves no option to do anything else. 

Without the passage of this legislation, I and parents like me will not automatically get a phone call from law enforcement when they arrest my teen for drinking at a party on a Friday night. Right now, we don’t get that phone call because the Texas justice system considers them adults. Instead, we’re at home wide awake and worrying, not even knowing they got in trouble.

Our job as parents is to steer our children in the right direction, but the current system makes our job harder. This is because the adult justice system does not focus on providing the education and services that are at the heart of the juvenile justice system.

Parents’ greatest wish for all children, including our 17-year-olds, is for them to become successful, self-sufficient adults. Nothing can destroy their chances faster than having adult criminal records.

One of the most common reasons for parental sleeplessness is concern about their children’s safety. The adult system is a dangerous place for minors. They are either housed with adult criminals or they are isolated; in some cases, they’re placed in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day. That’s dangerous. Research shows youth are at much higher risk of suicide in the adult system. And according to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, youth are more likely to be sexually victimized in an adult facility than other populations."

People make bad choices sometimes — adults and youth. While accountability and consequences are important for 17-year-olds, the solution should be a learning experience in a safe environment. Adult systems are built for adults. Our 17-year-old children are not adults and should not be treated as such. It’s time to do the right thing and raise the age of criminal jurisdiction — making the juvenile system the default for 17-year-olds who make bad choices and commit crimes. With strong direction and guidance, our goal is for all children and youth to become productive, responsible adult Texans.

Lisa Holbrook

President, Texas PTA