When staying ahead of crime, police need to be creative: Sometimes that creativity apparently comes from a thirty-year-old TV series—21 Jump Street—that’s been reinvented as a successful comedy franchise starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. That’s the takeaway from an undercover sting operation successfully excecuted over the past several months by the Brazoria County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Task Force, which culminated in six arrests of high school students in suburban Houston.
As the Houston Chronicle reports, the sting operation stretched out for eight months, with youthful-looking officers posing as high schoolers to infiltrate a student drug ring:
Six students in Pearland ISD – four of them adults; two still minors – were arrested and handed a total of 10 charges following the Brazoria County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Task Force undercover operation, which began in August 2014 and ended in March 2015.
According to a release, the task force seized cocaine, marijuana, Alprazolam and Tramadol from students at Pearland High School and Dawson High School.
The task force was assisted by the Pearland Police Department and Pealand ISD.
The story quickly went national, and for good reason—it’s a fun news hook, and quirky crime stories that can also be illustrated with photos of Channing Tatum have a very real appeal (we’re not above it, either!). But it’s also worth considering the charming 21 Jump Street tie-in in the broader context of Texas’s juvenile justice issues.
For example, because 17-year-olds in Texas are always tried as adults, outlets can include the names of four of the six students busted in the sting, even though they’re not old enough to vote or buy a lottery ticket.
Teenage drug rings are no doubt a serious problem, but the fact that the operations to bust them involve disguising officers as high school students—and that such a scenario is weird enough to warrant a comedy film franchise—does highlight why there’s momentum for “raise the age” bills currently in the lege. It’s frightening that a high school junior who hasn’t committed a violent crime (none of the charges in the sting are for violent crimes), might find himself or herself facing time in an adult facility designed to imprison violent criminals. And that prospect is only thrown into relief when we’re all laughing about Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill.
Despite the bills before the legislature, action on the issue is unlikely to happen right now. And while, as Senator John Whitmire (who as the head of the criminal justice committee, is in a position to make or break the issue) points out, “a 17-year-old knows right from wrong,” a 17-year-old who is accused of delivering marijuana to a fellow student in a drug-free zone faces a conviction that will follow him for the rest of his life. That may be justice, but a 17-year-old’s sense of consequences are probably not well-enough developed to understand what that will mean later in his life—which is why, in most states, someone that age is considered a juvenile offender, where the focus is on rehabilitation.
None of this is new, of course—but it’s worth remembering that as quirky as these undercover sting stories are, the consequences are very serious.