By James Niedzinski
---- — A Cape Ann lawmaker leading a push to have Massachusetts join 39 other states in classifying 17-year-olds as juveniles, rather than adults, when faced with what he called “moinor” criminal charges and in dealing with the state’s court system.
Rep. Bradford Hill, the Ipswich Republican whose district includes the town of Manchester, said he filed his bill to reclassify 17-year-old delinquents as juveniles in part because of safety concerns about their treatment if and when they are sentenced to serve detention time with much older adults.
Hill, who also serves as the Minority whip of the House of Representatives, said he has several concerns about the teenage group being charged as adults.
In a My View opinion piece published in Monday’s Times, Hill also noted that, under current and adult guidelines, a 17-year-old might agree to a guilty plea without consulting a parent. He also noted that the bill would protect a 17-year-old from being saddled with having a criminal record at such a young age, and from having his or her name reported as part of the public record as is the case today.
Hill said he wrote the legislation so that it would would only apply to “minor” cases, leaving authorities the option to still file adult charges against juveniles — as is the case now regarding felony crimes of violence.
Carrie Kimball Monahan, speaking for the Essex County District Attorney’s office, said Wednesday that DA Jonathan Blodgett had not yet fully reviewed or commented on Hill’s pending legislation, but she noted that not every case involving a 17-year-old now is always handled as if the perpetrator were an adult. Currently, a juvenile is classified as anyone under 17, she said, but anyone between the ages of 17 and 21 can be classified as a “youthful offender.
Essex County, along with others across the state, employs a “youthful diversion” program that allows a youthful offender who commits a non-violent, first-time offense to avoid serving any jail time or be saddled with an adult criminal record. And both juveniles and youthful offenders are offered the chance to perform community service, pay financial restitution or take part in a counseling program.
Kimball Monahan said the diversion program differs from person to person, depending on the nature of the offense; she also said the program has proven to be a “tremendous success,” and said many young offenders choose to take part in it.
Both Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello and state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said Wednesday they see general advantages in Hill’s proposal.
“From a law enforcement standpoint, the ages of 16 and 17 have always been a gray area anyway,” said Campanello, who served more than wo decaces with of the Saugus Police Department before taking the reins as Gloucester’s chief this past summer. “Clearing up some confusion is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Tarr, R-Gloucester, said he thinks Hill’s House proposal has merit.
“It’s certainly an idea worth exploring; it could be very productive in creating a path toward rehabilitation,” he said, though he saw a potential red flag as well.
“If we do move forward with the legislation,” he cautioned, “it would be critical to maintain a safety valve in the event of a very serious crime, where a juvenile would not benefit from other programs.”
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at email@example.com.