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Should Massachusetts raise the maximum age for Juvenile Court jurisdiction?


Andy Pond

CEO of the Justice Resource Institute, a nonprofit whose services include operating the Juvenile Court Clinic Program in Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket, and Plymouth counties

Andy Pond.Handout

Let’s start with some basics. The juvenile justice system is designed to rehabilitate. Drawing on the capacity of young people to develop responsibility and judgment, it mandates education and counseling while holding youth accountable for their actions. The adult system is designed to punish and is far less invested in turning around lives.

Today the law in Massachusetts ends access to the state juvenile system at age 18. That is failed policy. Young adults have the highest recidivism rate of any age group in our criminal justice system, though we spend more money on them than on older people. Any legislative action that directly reduces young adult incarceration will, if applied fairly, reduce the numbers of young black and brown people whose adult lives are scarred by a criminal record.

After more than 30 years working with young people, I know that no magical transformation happens when a person turns 18. Indeed the state Department of Youth Services already manages youth up to their 21st birthdays. Neuroscience demonstrates that the brain is physically changing well into the 20s. When we send an 18-year-old to the adult system, we squander potential. We put young adults, highly influenced by their environments, in situations that only make them worse.


The justice reforms that the Legislature is considering should include moving 18-year-olds to juvenile jurisdiction. Crime will drop -- just as it did when we moved 17-year-olds to the juvenile justice system. That reform proves that “adulthood” is a moving target. That target has always been a bit farther off for white, middle-class youth, typically transitioning to adulthood in the forgiving environment of a college.


I support raising the age based on Massachusetts’ experience that moving older adolescents to the juvenile justice system prevents crime and makes communities safer; the scientific evidence that 18-year-olds are primed for rehabilitation; and the belief that human beings are more alike than different. It would have been catastrophic for me to experience the brutalizing adult criminal justice system at age 18. It would have been catastrophic for my own child. How can I wish it on someone else’s?


William Lyttle

Easton resident, president of the Key Program, a nonprofit that helps troubled youth and their families

William Lyttle.Handout

Many of the proposed changes in the Senate and House versions of the criminal justice reform legislation on Beacon Hill would be positive steps for the juvenile justice system. But I would oppose the provision of the Senate bill that raises the age at which one is considered an adult to 19 for criminal offenses -- not keeping it at 18 as the House bill does.

Research does show that people’s brains do not fully mature until their mid-20s and that young people as a result are more likely to act impulsively. Yet Massachusetts already views the age of adult status as 18 for most decisions. Like any other adult, an 18-year-old can vote, join the military, obtain a driver’s license with no restrictions, legally purchase any tobacco product, make health and legal decisions, and drop out of school, all without parental permission. To have an 18-year-old viewed by law as a juvenile for delinquent behavior, but an adult for most of their other actions, is inconsistent and is confusing to the young adult and the broader community. One is either an adult or not.


Our agency’s 43-year experience in providing direct services to youth involved with the juvenile justice, child welfare, and mental health systems shows us that the 18-year-old is generally less receptive than younger teens to juvenile treatment interventions given his or her status as an adult. The 18-year-old is also typically more resistant to adult guidance, and more prone to assaults against other program youth and staff. Keeping the adult age at 18 restricts the level of unhealthy, negative influences to which younger teens are exposed.

Some argue that an 18-year-old has more access to more robust services if in the juvenile system. While it is certainly vital that young adults be offered the opportunity for a good education, and access to vocational services and counseling, these services should and could be part of the adult system.

Lastly, for those concerned that an 18-year-old will automatically be treated more harshly, the adult justice system is sensitive to age and, depending upon the seriousness of the offense, often gives a lesser sentence -- such as probation or community service -- than to an older adult.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.