Retired First Justice of Middlesex County Juvenile Court; interim executive director of Massachusetts Advocates for Children; Watertown resident
Who belongs in front of a juvenile court judge? Having presided in juvenile sessions for many years, I have a pretty good idea: Those whose youth gives them great potential for change; those who will be helped by the education, counseling, positive youth development philosophy, and other rehabilitative practices of the state Department of Youth Services; and those who — given the right opportunities — will cease to break the law as they mature.
If we follow the science, Massachusetts legislators will raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include people up to their 21st birthday and better protect public safety. As the Mass. General Hospital/Harrvard Medical School’s Center for Law, Brain & Behavior notes, decades of developmental research show that late teens have more in common with younger adolescents than with their elders.
This is not theory. Studies conclusively demonstrate brain development continues into the mid-20s. There’s simply no scientific basis to end juvenile court jurisdiction at 18, the current age limit in Massachusetts.
Trying late teens in the criminal system and sentencing them to jails and prisons hasn’t worked and too often pushes them deeper into criminality. Late teens have the highest recidivism of any age group in our adult correctional system. Data from a Mass. legislative task force shows that 76 percent will be rearraigned within three years. When we send an 18-year-old into the adult system, failure is the most likely outcome.
Meanwhile, DYS is under capacity and can far better help youth over 18 transition into productive adulthood. In fact, it already does.The agency’s recidivism rate is only 25 percent, and 64 percent of youth discharged from DYS voluntarily continue to receive services. Youthful offenders — those up to 18 years old — can remain under Juvenile Court jurisdiction until they are 21, or 22 in child welfare cases.
It’s counterintuitive not to treat late teens in a more rehabilitative system featuring dramatically lower recidivism rates. Critically, raising the age would be an act of racial justice. According to a 2016 Prison Policy Initiative study, Blacks are six times more likely than whites to enter Massachusetts correctional facilities.
Arbitrarily setting the age of adult prosecution at 18 is bad policy that harms us all. Let’s follow the science and be smart on crime while improving public safety in the process.
A. Kevin Kennedy
Lincoln police chief
Along with other members of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, I believe it would be a mistake to raise the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 20. The proposed legislation would result in significant adverse impacts to police procedures.
While it is true that the adolescent brain is not fully developed, the vast majority of 18-year-olds understand the difference between right and wrong and that there are consequences to their behavior.
When you turn 18, society considers you mature enough to cast a ballot, marry, enlist in the military, drop out of school, and sign a legal contract, all without your parent’s consent. This legislation would create inconsistencies and confusion in how people under 21 are treated under the law.
For instance, even those largely independent and no longer under parental care — including people who are married or in the military — would come under Juvenile Court procedures if charged with or a victim of a crime.
Supporters believe changing the law will lower recidivism rates and lead to better outcomes for young people. Research has shown that diversion and restorative justice programs more effectively prevent future crimes than initiating formal court proceedings.
State law allows district courts to place any young adult defendant 18 and over into a diversion program, which addresses these concerns. Furthermore, through the state’s 2018 criminal reform law, restorative justice programs are now available to all defendants statewide regardless of their age. If a defendant successfully completes the community-based restorative justice program, the charges are dismissed.
Proponents also are concerned about having young adults housed with older adults while incarcerated. But the 2018 law allows incarcerated young adults to be housed separately. By doing so, they will not be influenced by the older adults in the system and their incarceration time can be focused on rehabilitation, mental health, and substance abuse treatment, education, and vocational skills training.
Whether in juvenile or district courts, judges impose sentences that are based on evidence and the specific needs of the defendant. Given that, there is no compelling reason to raise the maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction. Rather, expanding access to treatment, education, and vocational training will increase public safety and foster individual success.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact email@example.com.