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Editorial

Keep 17-year-olds out of adult prisons

Under Massachusetts law, 17-year-olds are treated as adults in the criminal justice system. A sensible effort is underway in the Legislature to raise that age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18. Criminal justice research, the demands of federal law, and common sense all argue for such a change. And it can be accomplished without exposing the public unduly to teens who commit murder or other violent offenses.

Confinement in adult jails or prisons puts 17-year-old prisoners at greater risk of victimization by older inmates and makes young offenders more likely to reoffend. Currently, 38 states and the federal government place offenders younger than 18 under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts. The US Supreme Court has reinforced that approach by accepting the concept of diminished criminal capacity for offenders under the age of 18 based, in part, on characteristics of the adolescent brain.

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There is a deep philosophical difference between juvenile detention and adult prison. Juvenile facilities require inmates to attend school and place heavy emphasis on counseling and mental health services. Adult prisons exist largely for punishment and social defense. It’s time for Massachusetts to mark the distinction.

The timing is auspicious. Crimes by juveniles are down, and there is plenty of room in juvenile detention centers to accommodate 17-year-old offenders. Additionally, Massachusetts will shortly find itself out of compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires prisons to separate younger prisoners from adults. It would be foolish to reconfigure existing correctional facilities or build expensive new facilities for 17-year-olds when the simple act of raising the age of adult jurisdiction would suffice.

Lael Chester, the executive director of the nonprofit Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said that the proposed change in the law could be accomplished without risk to the public. The focus is on the majority of 17-year-old offenders who commit nonviolent drug or property crimes, not those who terrorize their communities. Offenders as young as 14 who are charged with murder could still be tried and sentenced as adults. And other violent offenders could still be transferred from juvenile lockup to adult prison after turning 18.

Roughly 3,000 17-year-olds were arraigned in Massachusetts last year, according to Chester. About 100 might end up in county lock-up and just a few in state prison. But their employment and educational futures could be ruined by the collision with the adult criminal justice system. The juvenile system is designed to be more forgiving of those who make youthful mistakes. It doesn’t leave the indelible tracks of a criminal background check.

There is strong bipartisan support for Republican State Representative Brad Hill’s bill to treat offenders as juveniles short of their 18th birthdays. County sheriffs support the bill. They’ve seen how poorly 17-year-olds fare in their jails. There is less agreement among the state’s 11 district attorneys. Some feel they already do their share to divert 17-year-olds from jail. The support of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association would be a enormous boost for the bill. But even without it, lawmakers have sufficient reason to draw the line at 18.

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