Yvonne Abraham

Child-safe lockups

Sometimes, my beloved Massachusetts embarrasses me a bit.

Here we are, reputedly among the best-
educated and most progressive states in the ­nation. And yet sometimes, especially when it comes to crime, we’re way behind parts of the country that some elitists among us might view with scorn.

To wit: Even though 38 other states, the US Supreme Court, and common sense agree that 17-year-olds are still kids, our state’s justice system treats them as adults.


As a rule, your garden-variety 17-year-old is impulsive, immature, irresponsible, and easily influenced. His brain is still ­developing. This is why he cannot legally vote, enter into a contract, enlist in the military, or buy a lottery ticket in Massachusetts.

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But if that same 17-year-old is accused of a crime, presto, he is suddenly an adult. He can be held in a county jail to await trial, tried in a court system that is not set up for him, and, in a few cases, sentenced to time in a state prison with inmates more experienced in crime than he is.

It would take days to go through all the reasons why this is a messed-up thing, but here are a few. Though the vast majority of offenses committed by 17-year-olds are relatively minor, chiefly drug offenses and larceny, trying the teens as adults saddles them with criminal records that affect them for life, forever compromising their ability to become educated, productive taxpayers. Because 17-year-olds are considered adults by the law, police are not required to call parents when one is arrested or to involve them in life-altering decisions like whether to plead.

Teenage inmates held in adult facilities are at much higher risk for abuse, sexual assault, and suicide than other inmates. They’re also far more likely to reoffend than those held in juvenile facilities, partly ­because adult lockups can function as criminal grad schools.

About 3,300 17-year-olds were arraigned in this state’s adult system in 2011, according to Citizens for Juvenile Justice, the ­Massachusetts nonprofit trying to fix this. Several hundred of those teenagers are locked up in county jails at any given time. A handful are in state prisons.


This is such an immense waste. The ­juvenile justice system in Massachusetts is actually quite good at turning kids around and getting better at it every year, offering kids things that are hard to get, or non­existent, in adult lock-ups: safety, counseling designed for their age group, workers who understand their brains and needs. In the long run, it’s a much cheaper route to public safety.

Which is why it’s remarkable and distressing that the Legislature is only now considering its first-ever bill to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18 in Massachusetts.

Filed by Newton Democrat Kay Khan in the House and by Ashland Democrat ­Karen Spilka in the Senate, the bill offers a thought­ful compromise, moving 17-year-olds accused of relatively minor crimes into the juvenile courts while keeping those ­accused of murder and other serious crimes in the adult system. It has plenty of support, but it’s stuck in the Ways and Means Committee because some officials have ­expressed concern that it might put an ­extra burden on the courts and the Department of Youth Services.

Advocates say that there is room for 17- year-olds in the juvenile justice system ­because the crime rate among teens is at historic lows. Beyond that, they say the bill will pay for itself, especially in the long term, in lower re-offense rates. In Connecticut, which raised the juvenile threshold from 16 to 18 and expanded services for young offenders in 2007, an upcoming study by the Tow Foundation finds that spending on juvenile justice is actually lower than it was 10 years ago.

The Massachusetts bill will die if it doesn’t get out of committee by Dec. 31, so advocates will probably have to start over again come January. Such a shame. Changing the law isn’t just humane, but logical.


Even a 17-year-old could see that.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at