When Is a Juvenile No Longer a Juvenile?

A new bill before the Massachusetts Legislature would change how 17-year-olds are tried and sentenced.

When it comes to incarceration, Massachusetts has recognized 17 as the age of adulthood since 1846. Of course, anyone who has a 17-year-old might question that assumption, as have citizens in 38 states across the U.S. Even some states we think of as far more conservative than Massachusetts—Arizona, Alabama, and Mississippi, for example—send lawbreakers younger than 18 to juvenile instead of adult court.

In May, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted unanimously that most 17-year-olds could no longer be tried and sentenced as adults. The juvenile court will still be able to impose adult—i.e. prison—sentences in serious cases, and all juvenile murder cases will continue to automatically be tried in adult courts. But if the Senate echoes ratification in the current 2013-2014 session, the bill will become law, and approximately 3,000 17-year-olds per year in the state will no longer be adjudicated as adults. That means they will go to juvenile lock-ups, be put on probation, or be sentenced to a range of other sanctions other than prison.

That makes sense, especially since the majority of crimes committed by this age group are comparatively minor. Per a 2012 report by Citizens for Juvenile Justice (CFJJ), an advocacy and education group, “the majority [of 17-year-olds] are arrested for relatively minor offenses, including larceny/theft, simple assaults, liquor law violations and disorderly conduct.”

Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), the lead sponsor of the House bill, was joined by Rep. Brad Hill (R-Ipswich) and a host of other legislators who signed on, said in an interview that she has been working on getting the bill through the Legislature since 2011. She said that what makes it so appealing to legislators now is that juvenile crime is on the decline and “… there is plenty of room in our juvenile system to deal with the addition of 17-year-old youthful offenders. The bill does not change the law; it just moves the age.”

Naoka Carey, recently appointed executive director of CFJJ, said in a phone conversation that they fought hard to pass this bill. She hopes Massachusetts will soon see the end of the current “outdated law.” She cited a fair amount of research to show that mixing kids with adults does not deter crime. “We really don’t know how many kids go to trial and are found delinquent,” she said, but she estimates that about 15,000 kids in the Commonwealth are arrested each year. In Massachusetts, Carey said, a “youthful offender” can be as young as 7, but the majority are 12 and older. She pointed out that “families have much more say” in the case of a youthful lawbreaker in all parts of the process from arrest to education about available services through court proceedings. That aids troubled kids get on the road to change.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has called kids in the adult system a public safety issue and that youth housed with adults return to crime 34 percent more than youth in juvenile detention. They’re also are more vulnerable for suicide, depression, and illnesses such as asthma, according to the CDC. But the most disturbing stats are on sexual assault: CFJJ’s website states that prisoners “under eighteen make up only one percent of the population, but are victims in 21 percent of prison rapes.”

Because of this incredible vulnerability to sexual assault, the Department of Justice recently updated the requirements of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which prohibits incarcerating youth under 18 in any adult prison or jail facility.

It looks like the Senate better get moving on passing this bill into law. On August 20, new PREA regulations will take effect, and if Massachusetts isn’t in compliance, we’ll be out a lot more money than the cost of adding 3,000 17-year-olds to the juvenile system. Naoka said that without the law, all jails and houses of correction, police lockup, and court holding facilities would need to be reconstructed, and extra staff would most likely need to be hired.

Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) has also put forward a similar bill, and the Legislature will have to decide how to merge or otherwise deal with the proposals. But the message is clear: Massachusetts is finally coming around to an idea that makes sense.