House votes to move 17 year-olds into juvenile justice system

The House unanimously passed legislation Wednesday that would move 17-year-old offenders into the juvenile justice system in Massachusetts, ending the practice of routinely incarcerating 17-year-olds in adult corrections facilities.

“I’ll be the first to tell you that young adults at those ages don’t always make the right decisions,” said Rep. Brad Hill (R-Ipswich), a father who coaches high school basketball and said the change would help relieve some of the stress on prisons as well. He said, “Our prisons right now are so overcrowded that they are bursting at the seams.”

If it becomes law, the change will head off a new federal law set to go into effect in August that would require those under 18 to be segregated from the rest of the inmate population at adult corrections facilities, according to lawmakers.

The bill (H 1432) now heads to the Senate for its consideration.

Massachusetts is in the minority in the country, as 38 states, Washington D.C. and the federal government recognize the age of 18 as the age of “majority,” said House Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary Eugene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea).

Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), who co-sponsored the legislation with Hill, said the juvenile court expects additional cases with passage of the bill, but the court system will be able to handle that.

The Department of Youth Services will soon be without a commissioner, as Commissioner Edward Dolan was recently appointed commissioner of probation by the Trial Court, with a June 10 start date. Executive Office of Health and Human Services spokesman Alec Loftus told the News Service, “We expect to have an announcement soon.”

Gov. Deval Patrick had proposed his own juvenile justice reform bill (H 52), which also would place 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system. Patrick’s bill would also eliminate the mandatory sentence of life without parole for juveniles convicted of first degree murder, which he said is keeping with a recent Supreme Court decision, and other sentencing changes.

“We know in juveniles, many of the problems that juveniles experience have much to do with what does or doesn’t go on in their homes, and because the juvenile system is rehabilitative and not penal as much, the opportunity to use that model of programming – that incorporates the family and deals with many of the family issues that are created with juveniles’ issues – is just a great thing,” Secretary of Public Safety and Security Andrea Cabral told the News Service earlier this week.

Cabral said that the juvenile justice system has more of a focus on rehabilitation and has the resources to require youths to participate in treatment, and said she favors more comprehensive reforms.

“I can tell you just from being sheriff for 10 years, cognitively there’s no difference between a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old, and you can probably make the argument that there’s no difference between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old,” said Cabral. “If having that group stay in DYS custody for one more year gives a person of that age another year of cognitive behavioral therapy or other programs or services designed for juveniles versus that person being in the adult system where they can take the option about whether or not they get involved in programming – that’s the difference.”

House lawmakers pointed out that the legislation would not preclude prosecutors from seeking to try a juvenile as an adult.

“Youths that engage in egregious conduct can still be indicted,” said O’Flaherty. He said he guessed the average person on the street would guess that 17-year-olds are dealt with through the juvenile justice system.

Hill said 17-year-olds in corrections facilities are eight times more likely than an adult to be the victim of rape, and eight times more likely to commit suicide than a 17-year-old in a juvenile lockup. Youth in juvenile detention are required to attend school, and there is capacity within DYS because of the falling juvenile crime rate, said Khan. The bill would also require parental notification when a 17-year-old is arrested, said Hill, who said the current law doesn’t provide for that.

Hill said his eyes had been opened to the need for changes during last year’s debate over a sentencing reform bill that lowered mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses while taking away the possibility of parole for certain, violent habitual offenders.

“I think we can be a model for the rest of the country by supporting this unanimously,” Hill said, before the 152-0 vote on Wednesday.


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