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Opinion | David Scharfenberg

We’re not done with criminal justice reform

Lesley Becker/Globe staff

THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM package Governor Charlie Baker signed into law last week got a lot right — making it easier to divert low-level offenders away from prison and into treatment, for instance, and curbing the use of solitary confinement for those who land behind bars.

It was an important corrective for a state that’s not as progressive on matters of crime and punishment as it likes to imagine.

But for all the meaningful reforms, the legislation fell short in one crucial regard: It failed to make big, bold changes to the way we deal with so-called emerging adults, a critically important population that should be at the center of any reform.


These young people, ages 18 to 24, account for just 10 percent of the US population but 30 percent of arrests. And they have higher recidivism rates than any other age group; here in Massachusetts, a staggering 76 percent released from prison are rearraigned within three years.

Whether you have sympathy for these emerging adults — many of them poor and mentally ill — or little regard for their plight, this much is clear: Whatever we’re doing now is failing. Abjectly. And we’re all paying the price in public safety and public treasure.

There’s little mystery surrounding this age group’s relatively high crime rate. Neuroscience tells us the brain is still developing into the mid-20s, and, as any parent can attest, young adults are more impulsive, more susceptible to peer influence, and less future-oriented than full-grown adults.

They are, in short, still prone to a lot of knuckleheaded behavior. But they’ve also got tremendous capacity for change. And the task of policy makers is to put them in settings conducive to that change.

The cleanest approach — with the broadest impact — would be to raise the age for the juvenile justice system to 21 or higher, steering these young men and women into a system that is more focused on rehabilitation than punishment.


Other Western countries latched onto this model long ago. The cutoff in Germany is 21, and in the Netherlands, it’s 23. Massachusetts lawmakers should move to gradually add 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds to the state’s juvenile system.

In the meantime, we can significantly improve how the adult system approaches this population. Start by emulating San Francisco, where the district attorney and probation chief have launched a special court for 18- to 24-year-olds. It won’t take cases involving serious bodily harm. But offenders charged with robbery or assault can avoid the sort of felony convictions that dog them for decades if they attend life-skills classes, check in regularly with a judge, and maintain clean records.

Jailhouses are ripe for reform too. In Massachusetts, Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian recently launched a specialized unit for emerging adults. Prisoners thumb through copies of “A Civil Action” or “Friday Night Lights” in a small library, hug their mothers during contact visits, and talk through their problems with therapists, corrections officers, and each other.

Assistant Deputy Superintendent Scot Chaput, a workout nut with close-cropped hair and ice-blue eyes, runs the outfit. He said he was deeply skeptical when he first heard about plans for an emerging adult unit. “I thought it was totally crazy,” he said. “The 18- to 24-year-olds? They’re the biggest problem we have in the facility. . . . We’re going to put them all in one place?”


But a visit to a pioneering young-adult block in a Connecticut prison changed his view entirely. And after a few months in charge of the Middlesex unit, his view of prisoners has shifted too. “For years, it was ‘They’re inmates, they’re troublemakers,’ ” he said. “But when you sit down and you talk to an individual about the struggles he’s had in life . . . it just gives you a different outlook.”

The inmates are in a different frame of mind, too. Gary Mercer, a 23-year-old serving time for a firearms charge, said he’s come to realize that he’s “a glutton for punishment” — that “doing the right thing is really hard” for him, but that he needs to find a way.

Mercer said the staff in the emerging-adult unit, known as P.A.C.T., for People Achieving Change Together, are different. “You actually feel like people care,” he said. “And they’re going out of their way to find other avenues . . . for us when we get out of here, so we don’t come back.”

Seeing this kind of unit up close is heartening. But it’s maddening, too. It’s obvious that a thoughtful approach to young adult offenders is superior to the deadening ritual of traditional imprisonment. And yet, with a handful of exceptions, we just keep on doing what we’re doing — locking up these young men alongside older career criminals, releasing them after they do their time, and watching them drift back to prison.


The state made real progress last week when the governor signed the criminal justice reform package into law. But we’ve got more progress — a lot more progress — to make.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe