This afternoon, the state Legislature’s joint Judiciary Committee will take up a bill from state Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, that would raise from 17 to 18 the age where young offenders could be prosecuted as adults.
The bill deserves a full, fair hearing, as does a similar one from state Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton.
While no one wants to be seen as being “soft” on crime, a persuasive argument can be made that treating 17-year-olds as full-grown adult criminals leaves them vulnerable to abuse and more likely to re-offend.
Hill, for example, has cited a Northeastern University study that showed youth placed in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to be re-arrested for a violent offense than those placed in the juvenile system.
“The juvenile system is designed to get at the root causes of delinquency,” Hill argues. “Risks such as gang influence, family problems and school issues often contribute to delinquent behavior. These youth-specific issues are recognized more quickly and addressed more skillfully in the juvenile justice system.
“To be successful, kids need things the adult system simply is not designed to deliver, including age-appropriate education, such as high school or vocational training and the special education services that so many young inmates need,” Hill says. “The Department of Youth Services is focused on maintaining family and community ties, which are correlated with positive outcomes for kids leaving the justice system.”
It should be noted that we’re not talking about major crimes here. Local district attorneys would still be able to seek adult charges in serious crimes, especially those involving violence. And youthful offenders would still answer for their transgressions; they would just do it in a more appropriate setting.
Most 17-year-olds arrested in Massachusetts, for example, are charged with non-violent offenses. According to the non-profit Citizens for Juvenile Justice, the top two charges 17-year-olds faced in 2008 were drug offenses (often marijuana) and larceny. The state’s juvenile justice system is certainly better equipped to handle such cases; there’s a better chance these high-school-age offenders will stay in class and have access to effective treatment programs.
The legislation “will go a long way in ensuring that juveniles get appropriate guidance and help when accused of committing minor crimes,” Hill said in a statement released this week. “There exists a large amount of research that illustrates the detrimental effects of sending minors through the adult criminal justice system ... a Center for Disease Control panel has identified the policy as a cause of violent crime – not a solution.”
In Massachusetts, all 17-year-olds accused of crimes are prosecuted as adults (meaning no one is required to contact their parents when they are arrested) and can be sent to adult jails and prisons, often putting them at high risk of sexual assault and suicide. District attorneys do, however, have the option to charge first-time offenders between 17 and 21 as “youthful offenders,” keeping them out of the adult detention system. To its credit, the Essex County district attorney’s office makes liberal use of the first-time offender program.
It’s worth noting that 38 states and the U.S. Supreme Court consider 18 to be the proper age of adult criminal responsibility. It’s time for Massachusetts to give the issue a long look.