Gov. Deval Patrick has signed into law a bill that steers 17-year-olds into the juvenile, rather than adult, justice system – a measure that began with a filing by Cape Ann and North Shore lawmaker Brad Hill.
Patrick signed the bill Wednesday that takes 17-year-old offenders off the adult court track in a move designed to help the courts direct more youthful offenders toward rehabilitation while also complying with a federal mandate to separate the younger inmates from the general prison population.
The law took effect immediately, with dozens of lawmakers and advocates heralding the measure as a win for youth and their families and one that should 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.
State Rep. Hill, the Ipswich Republican whose 4th Essex District includes the town of Manchester, had launched the push for the bill last January.
“The legislation signed into law will go a long way in ensuring that juveniles receive the proper guidance and assistance when accused of committing minor crimes,” Hill, who also serves as House Minority Whip, said in a prepared statement. “By utilizing this more appropriate method of dealing with adolescent offenders, the commonwealth has taken an important step towards keeping the affected youth from reoffending, instead setting them on the right path.”
The measure also drew praise from Hill’s Cape Ann legislative colleague, Gloucester-based state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr.
“Misplacing juveniles into the wrong judicial forum compromised the integrity of the system, and putting them in the wrong place also compromised its effectiveness,” Tarr said of the measure, which quickly drew bipartisan support in both chambers.
With the law now in place, 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.
He moved from Tennessee to Massachusetts last year, and after a period of homelessness after his aunt’s death he joined UTEC. He now has a job as a teller at a local credit union and is attending classes at Middlesex Community College.
The juvenile justice bill, one of the few major pieces of legislation to be signed into law this year, won support not just from Patrick and lawmakers, but the courts as well.
Judge Michael Edgerton, chief justice of the Juvenile Court, said that 17-year-olds still lack the maturity of adults and have a greater capacity for rehabilitation.
Hill said he hopes the bill not only strengthens the state’s justice system, but also helps relieve overcrowding in the prison system by moving thousands of 17-year-olds into the Department of Youth Services.