As we strive to reform our nation’s justice system, no population is more worthy of attention than so-called emerging adults, ages 18 to 24. That group makes up 10 percent of our state’s population but 23 percent of those behind bars. Harsh conditions and a lack of adequate programming mean they have the worst outcomes of any group, getting rearrested at unacceptably high rates and dying of overdoses 10 times more frequently than those over 45.
We also see the great racial disparities in our criminal justice system with this group. Although only 25 percent of Massachusetts residents are African-American or Latino, these demographics represent a troubling 70 percent of incarcerated emerging adults.
We owe it to our young people to do better.
Massachusetts is currently considering raising the age of adult prosecution to 21. This reform effort builds on 2013 legislation that brought 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system, even as juvenile crime dropped at a faster rate than in other parts of the country.
A recent trip to Germany with 20 of America’s leading prosecutors has helped us understand why it’s critical to embrace new approaches if we want to improve both public safety and outcomes for our youth.
During our week-long visit, we met with judges, prosecutors, public defenders, corrections officials, and young people themselves. We learned that following World War II, Germany was faced with a fast-growing number of orphaned children who became involved in criminal activity. Instead of locking them up, Germany embraced compassionate, age-appropriate responses.
Today, children under 14 cannot be prosecuted at all, and judges decide whether to treat 18-to- 20-year-olds as juveniles or adults.
Most cases are resolved with a fine or educational measures. And in the vast majority of serious cases, including murders, 18- to 20-year-olds are treated as juveniles. That means they are retained within the juvenile system and provided with age-appropriate resources focused on rehabilitation. Even young adults between 18 and 20 charged with the most serious offenses only face a maximum penalty of 15 years in detention. Meanwhile, the rate at which people return to prison in Germany within three years of release is 33 percent for 18- to 24-year-olds. That same rate is 50 percent in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Illinois, all of which are considering legislation that would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction beyond 17, have the opportunity to follow Germany’s lead.
Advocates for these reforms underscore the scientific data on brain development — including MRI scans of the brain showing the prefrontal cortex, where decision-making is based, does not finish developing until the mid-20s. Based on this evidence, many argue we cannot allow children whose brains aren’t fully developed to become entangled in the adult justice system, further traumatizing them.
Germany, however, didn’t need decades of scientific data to decide they were going to treat young people with compassion. The United States shouldn’t either.
Perhaps the German people decided to treat their children with compassion because the people making and enforcing the laws saw themselves and their own children reflected in these young people, who, for the most part, looked like them.
Justice system homogeneity is not the starting point in Suffolk County and in many other parts of the United States, however. The imprisonment rate for black people in Massachusetts is seven times higher than that of white people. Nationwide, we have a system where justice is not the same if you are poor or black or brown. Our children suffer most in the face of these disparities.
Almost 20 years into the 21st century, it is time for Massachusetts — and this nation — to treat its young people with the compassion that Germany embraced in the middle of the last century. We must adopt smarter strategies that will benefit our entire community. Only then will we bring real justice to our young people.
Rachael Rollins is Suffolk County district attorney. Miriam Aroni Krinsky is a former federal prosecutor and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution.