Opinion

Opinion | Nancy Gertner

19-year-olds don’t belong in adult prisons

Middleton, Massachusetts -- 7/16/2015-- Sheriff Frank Cousins talks about the wing that he will turn into a detox center for pretrial prisoners unable to make bail at the prison in Middleton, Massachusetts July 16, 2015. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff Topic: detoxunit Reporter:

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins (above) and Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins are supporting legislation that would gradually raise the age at which juveniles will be subject to juvenile court jurisdiction to include 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds.

Governor Baker introduced a criminal justice bill in February to great fanfare. Designed to give prisoners incarcerated on mandatory minimum sentences access to good-time credit to hasten their release and to provide reentry programming, it received wide bipartisan support — as it should. The justification was clear. “Reducing recidivism,” Baker said, was the bill’s focus. The people of Massachusetts benefit “when more individuals exit the system as law abiding and productive members of the society.”

True enough. Except for those sentenced to life imprisonment, all prisoners get out of jail, and if their needs have not been addressed inside prison, not much will change when they get outside. The bill the governor proposed should help. But measures that would do much much more to address recidivism are pending before the Legislature. Representatives Evandro Carvalho and Kay Khan and Senators Cynthia Creem and Karen Spilka propose to gradually raise the age at which juveniles will be subject to juvenile court jurisdiction to include 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds.

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Keeping 18-to-20-year-olds in the juvenile system, where they must attend school and participate in rehabilitative programming, where they are given supervision and intensive services, is the best bet to reduce recidivism. The governor should be championing these bills, as law enforcement representatives already have. Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins and former sheriff Frank Cousins are publicly supporting the bill, because sheriffs know better than anyone what damaging environments adult facilities can be for young people. Our current approach to this age group is a failure, with reoffending being more common than rehabilitation. It is time to try something new, informed by science and aimed at more than incremental change.

Judges, prosecutors, and defenders in juvenile court are specially trained and have a broader range of options to deal with young people than officials in the adult system. And those youths who are committed to the custody of the Department of Youth Services have access to developmentally appropriate programs. The data speak volumes: Centers for Disease Control research shows 34 percent lower recidivism for young people with similar offenses tried in the juvenile system rather than in the adult system.

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Neurobiology and developmental psychology show that 18-to-20-year-olds are at a distinct developmental stage, in between children and mature adults. Most will “age out of criminality,” especially if they cross the bridges that criminologists believe are essential, like completing their education, getting married, getting a job. Adult prison doesn’t just stall that trajectory; it could derail it entirely. And the impact of that imprisonment is worse with young African-Americans and Latinos, who are incarcerated in Massachusetts at 3.2 and 1.7 times the rate of whites.

It is hard to imagine an environment worse for a youthful offender than an adult prison. Professor Joshua Buckholtz, of the Harvard Department of Psychology, put it this way: If an evil genius scientist were hell-bent on using the most up-to-date neuroscientific insights to make youthful offenders more impulsive, aggressive, and antisocial, he could do no better than the adult prison: constant uncertain threat, being disconnected from communities, subject to long periods of social isolation, a regimented life that undermines their ability to learn to plan. He would break their ability to associate “good” behavior to future beneficial outcomes — a trait necessary for them to begin to envision a different life for themselves — by limiting access to meaningful occupational training and education while imprisoned, and/or ensuring that their occupational opportunities are impaired once released.

Concern for punishment is obviously appropriate. Under the proposed bills, offenders charged with most-serious crimes would still be eligible for adult sentences. But even to this population, the most difficult of all, Massachusetts has young adult programs that are national models. Programs like Roca, based in Chelsea, and the United Teen Equality Center, based in Lowell, deal even with the most troubled young adults, with extraordinary results.

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The bill makes economic sense, an issue with which the governor should be concerned. Of all age groups in our justice system, young adults are the ones Massachusetts spends the most money on, with the worst outcomes. Given the potential for a worker shortage as baby boomers retire, it makes no sense to warehouse these individuals — which is what adult prisons do — rather than giving them a better chance to contribute to their communities, helping to prevent intergenerational poverty.

The Council on State Governments’ final report, which served as the basis for the governor’s bill, identified emerging adults as a key priority for reform. If the governor means what he says about reducing recidivism, the proposal to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction should get his full support.

Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge, is a professor at Harvard Law School.
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