BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law Wednesday removing 17-year-old offenders from the adult court system in a move designed to help the courts put more youthful offenders on the track toward rehabilitation while also complying with a federal mandate to separate the younger inmates from the general prison population.
Dozens of lawmakers and advocates showed up at the State House to watch Patrick sign the bill, heralded as a win for youth and their families to prevent teens from falling into a pattern of reoffending.
“Thousands of kids will grow into adults who won’t have that stigma,” said Sen. Karen Spilka, who filed the Senate bill to move 17-year-olds into the Juvenile Court.
Rep. Kay Khan was the sponsor of the bill in the House (H 1432) that won bipartisan support in both branches.
“Misplacing juveniles into the wrong judicial forum compromised the integrity of the system and putting them in the wrong place also compromised its effectiveness,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said.
Massachusetts joins 39 other states, the District of Columbia and the federal government in treating 17-year-olds as youthful offenders, though minors accused of violent crimes can still be prosecuted in the adult court.
Supporters argued that studies have shown teenagers have a better chance of being rehabilitated in the juvenile court system, and are at less risk of physical assault in prison.
Riqie Wainaina, 24, of Lowell, testified at a hearing on the bill this year, and showed up Wednesday to see Patrick sign the bill with friends from the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell.
Wainaina was 21 when he was arrested in Tennessee for stealing food from a supermarket. On his first night in jail awaiting arraignment, Wainaina was assaulted by his cellmate.
“That was the most terrifying thing I’d ever gone through in my life. I can’t imagine how a 17-year-old would deal with it,” Wainaina said.