Two years ago, the state Legislature passed a sweeping package of criminal justice reforms. But lawmakers left out at least one key change: raising the age for the juvenile justice system by at least one year, to include 18-year-olds.
Now, with the release of a key new report on the subject, it’s time to act on that piece of unfinished business, and give youthful offenders a better chance to salvage their futures.
The first juvenile courts in this country sprang up more than a century ago, when Progressive-era reformers made the case that the criminal justice system should treat children not as smaller adults, but as a unique class entitled to different treatment.
The idea was to focus on rehabilitation, not punishment — to recognize that young people are less culpable for their transgressions and more amenable to change.
The cut-off for juvenile courts was set at the 16th, 17th, or 18th birthday, based on contemporary notions of when childhood ends and adulthood begins. But in recent decades, neuroscientists have established that there is a crucial in-between period — commonly referred to as “emerging adulthood.”
Young people in this liminal phase are certainly more mature than their 13-year-old selves. But they retain plenty of the impulsiveness and susceptibility to peer influence of their adolescence. And they’re less future-oriented than they will become.
Research shows that the parts of the brain responsible for emotional control are still developing into the mid-20s. Most offenders “age out” of crime around this time — their wilder impulses tempered and the steadying influence of marriage and parenthood settling in.
But by then, many have done enormous damage to their life prospects, racking up convictions that can make it difficult to find work and housing. And some, exposed to career criminals in the adult prison system, graduate to more serious crime when they return to the street.
Raising the age of the juvenile justice system provides emerging adults with an opportunity to make it to the next stage of life without the stain of an adult criminal record — and with a much better chance to access the education and counseling that’s more readily available in the juvenile system.
Those arguments persuaded the state Senate to vote to raise the age when the Legislature was weighing its package of criminal justice reforms in 2017 and 2018. But the House of Representatives balked on the proposal. The compromise: a task force composed of lawmakers, district attorneys, court officials, and advocates charged with examining how the system handles emerging adults.
The group’s report, filed Thursday, makes a detailed case for the unique needs of this population — and the suitability of the juvenile justice approach. It also demonstrates that the juvenile court has the capacity to take on more work.
The last time Massachusetts raised the age for its juvenile justice system, adding 17-year-olds in the fall of 2013, there was concern that new cases would overwhelm the system. But court data show the number of juvenile delinquency cases actually dropped, from 10,055 to 7,887, between fiscal 2014 and 2018 amid a long-term decline in crime.
A separate category of child welfare cases — launched when the state removes a child from a home — spiked in 2014 after the high-profile death of a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy, Jeremiah Oliver. But the numbers have declined since then.
Still, in discussions with the task force, juvenile court officials suggested that raising the age would place an undue burden on the system. And their concerns help explain why a report that lays out so many arguments for adding 18-, 19-, and even 20-year-olds to the juvenile justice system stops short of making a formal recommendation for expansion.
Lawmakers should not be dissuaded. Given the recent experience with 17-year-olds, it seems clear the court can absorb older populations; indeed, the juvenile system already serves a certain number of older offenders who committed crimes before age 18.
There is an alternative to raising the age: Carving out space for emerging adults in the adult justice system. And the report highlights some promising local efforts in this vein — including a specialized court in Hampden County and set-aside units in the Middlesex and Suffolk county jails.
But if these efforts are worthy, they are also piecemeal: a county here, a county there. Taking this bit-by-bit approach to scale would take years — and a huge cultural shift in an adult system built around punishment.
The lawyers and judges and administrators in the Commonwealth’s juvenile system, widely considered one of the best in the country, have been working with young people for decades. They understand emotional development. They understand rehabilitation. And they can get to work tomorrow with a new generation of emerging adults at critical junctures in their lives.
But first, the Legislature has to act. With the commission’s study in hand, the Senate should revive its effort to raise the age and put pressure on the House to get on board.
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