, Gloucester, MA

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January 25, 2013

Editorial: Juvenile bill for 17-year-olds is worth a look

No one should want to peel back laws that are tough on crime.

Indeed, over the last two years, Massachusetts has seen a wide range of cases that have rightfully called for more defined and tougher sentencing and parole mandates, while crying out for more accountability when it comes to repeat drunken drivers, drug suspects and more.

But state Rep. Brad Hill is indeed right to seek a fairly subtle change that would, in a general sense, provide more fair treatment for one group of high-school age offenders. Hill’s bill — aimed, as he puts it, at “treating kids as kids” — would include 17-year-old offenders under the umbrella of juveniles instead of as adults, in most cases involving misdemeanors and non-violent crimes. And that is a step Hill’s State House colleagues should consider backing.

It’s important to note, first of all, that Hill’s bill would not scale back any stipulations allowing police and/or district attorneys to seek adult charges against juveniles — as they can now — when the case calls for it. It’s also worth noting that, as Essex County DA’s representative Carrie Kimball Monahan 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.

But Hill’s bill would be more definitive, recognizing 17-year-olds only as juveniles unless their cases — usually incidents of violence or perhaps a second- or third-time drunken driving offense — merit their being charged as adults in exception to the law.

Hill notes that the issue is, in large part, a measure of safety — and he’s right. It seems obvious that a 17-year-old who is detained in jail even prior to a hearing alongside hardened adult criminals would be vulnerable, and juveniles have more protection in terms of parental presence at questioning as well. Also, in these days of Google and all sorts of online reporting records, juvenile protection would usually keep a 17-year-old’s name out of public arrest records, which would be fair in cases of first offenses and relatively incidental crimes.

State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, emphasizes 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 it’s also important to note that, despite those red flags, Tarr believes Hill’s bill is one that’s “worth exploring.”

He’s right.

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