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August 3, 2013

Juvenile status for 17-year-olds advances

A bill that would enable 17-year-olds to be treated as juveniles rather than adult-level criminals in most cases in Massachusetts, has taken a significant step closer to law.

A version of a House bill pushed by Rep. Brad Hill, who represents Manchester, cleared the Senate earlier this week after gaining inital House approval earlier this year. The bills will now be reconciled through conference committee.

Currently in Massachusetts, 17-year-olds accused of a crime are treated as adults, regardless of the circumstances or severity of the offense.

Hill, the Ipswich Republican whose district includes his hometown, Hamilton and Wenham, Topsfield and part of Rowley in addition to Manchester, said there is are multiple reasons he got behind the idea.

Hill said that, while helping out with Melissa’s Law — also known as the three strikes law for habitual offenders — he began to realize the affects prison can have on 17-year-olds, who face rape, overcrowding prisons and other issues behind prison walls.

“My eyes were open, we needed to address that situation,” he said.

Thirty-nine other states and the federal government all use 18 as the age of adult criminal jurisdiction. And because all 17- and 18-year-olds have to be segregated from other prisoners under federal law, smaller municipalities would have a tough time finding the space to separate those in custody, Hill said.

The bill would also help 17-year-olds get them the help they need, while protecting their names from being made public in many cases as well.

“It was clear to me we needed to do something,” he said.

Every case involving a 17-year-old does not always result in them being tried as an adult. Anyone between the ages of 17 and 21 can be classified as a “youthful offender” in Essex County.

The youthful diversion program differs from person to person, Hill said, noting that it would still be up to the district attorney’s office whether to pursue trying a 17-year-old as a criminal or juvenile.

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