, Gloucester, MA

April 6, 2013

Editorial: Bill raising age on juvenile crimes is worth long look

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Months after it was filed, the state Legislature’s joint Judiciary Committee is now taking up state Rep. Brad Hill’s bill that would that would raise from 17 to 18 the age at which young offenders could be prosecuted as adults.

And, as we noted earlier, it is indeed a bill that deserves a full, fair hearing.

Look, no one should be or wants to be seen as being “soft” on crime. But, as Hill and others have noted, 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, the Ipswich Republican whose district includes the town of Manchester, 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’s important to note that we’re not talking about major crimes here. District attorneys like Essex County’s Jonathan Blodgett 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. Indeed, as Essex County DA’s representative Carrie Kimball Monahan has noted, authorities at least have an option now that allows them to charge first-time offenders age 17-21 as “youthful offenders,” keeping those teens and young adults who may make one stupid mistake out of the adult detention system, and giving them the chance to have their crimes erased from the public record.

Most 17-year-olds arrested in Massachusetts, for example, are charged with non-violent offenses. According to the nonprofit 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.

Gloucester’s Bruce Tarr, the state Senate Minority Leader, has emphasized the need to ensure that Hill’s proposal would not create more loopholes for 17-year-old suspects charged with crimes, and will be important to clearly define which crimes would be exempted from juvenile protection.

But right now, 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.

That can be a recipe for trouble all its own. And it’s worth noting that 38 states and the U.S. Supreme Court consider 18 to be the proper age of adult criminal responsibility as it is.

It’s time for Massachusetts to give that threshold a long look as well.