GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 21, 2013

My View: Treating kids as kids in justice system

My View
State Rep. Brad Hill

---- — Parents of teenagers spend a lot of time working with their kids on making good decisions, because they know that a single bad decision can be life-altering.

Our state is one of a handful that automatically tries and sentences 17-year-olds as adults, no matter how minor the charges against them.

But the goal with young people in trouble should be to get them on course toward productive citizenship, not to lead them toward a life of crime. Massachusetts law actually encourages more criminal behavior. Simply put, trying a 17-year-old as an adult for a minor crime is unproductive.

In order to strive for an irrefutable solution, I have filed a bill that will place 17-year-olds in juvenile jurisdiction in minor cases.

The body of research showing the detrimental effects of sending kids to the adult criminal system is so large and conclusive that a Centers for Disease Control panel identified the policy as a cause of violent crime. Youth placed in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to be re-arrested for a violent offense than those handled by the juvenile system, even when controlling for other factors, an extensive study by Northeastern University researchers found. This 34 percent increase in re-offending is a cost taxpayers and future victims should not have to pay.

The juvenile system is designed to get at the root causes of delinquency. 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. 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 is particularly disturbing that parents are shut out of the process when a 17-year-old is considered an adult. Parents are not notified when an arrest is made. A kid may be interrogated and even agree to a plea bargain with no parental guidance.

An adult record can prevent a young person from pursuing the activities that will make him or her a productive citizen. It can be a barrier to educational opportunities, employment and military service.

The adult criminal justice system not only fails to help kids; it frequently puts them in harm’s way. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found kids are far more likely to be sexually and physically abused when placed in adult prisons. This is none too surprising, considering the prospect of placing a vulnerable 17-year-old next to a hardened criminal two or three times his or her age.

New Department of Justice regulations seek to keep young people safer by ensuring they are not housed with adult prisoners. If we do not change our practices in Massachusetts, we risk non-compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Our moral and legal liability will be enormous.

By returning 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system, Massachusetts would be protecting them and protecting every citizen of the Commonwealth, because we would all benefit from a decrease in rates of re-offending. Public safety would remain safeguarded, as judges may still impose adult sentences on 17-year-olds accused of serious offenses. The vast majority of 17-year-olds arrested in Massachusetts, it should be noted however, are charged with relatively minor crimes.

Placing the age of juvenile jurisdiction at the age of majority will permit 17-year-olds to benefit from the increased rehabilitative capabilities and safer facilities of the juvenile justice system, while giving Massachusetts citizens the benefit of safer streets.

As 39 other states and the federal government have already realized, it makes sense to treat kids like kids. It is Massachusetts’ turn to allow parents to stay involved in their children’s decision making for as long as possible and that is why I have filed this legislation.

State Rep. Brad Hill is a Republican from Ipswich; his state House district includes the town of Manchester.