Why Sentencing Children As Adults Is A Bad Idea

In the wake of the killing of Danvers teacher Colleen Ritzer, Massachusetts once again grapples with our backwards laws.

As tight-knit Danvers mourns the tragic death of Colleen Ritzer, the 24-year-old math teacher found dead last week near Danvers High School, there’s some concern with what could be another potential tragedy. Ritzer’s accused killer, Philip Chism, a 14-year-old Danvers High student, is being held for murder, and in spite of his age, will be tried as an adult in an adult court.

What that means for Chism is not entirely clear given that a Grand Jury has not yet officially indicted him for first- or second-degree murder and that the laws for juveniles are in limbo, but the state’s history of juveniles being tried and sentenced as adults paints a bleak picture for youth.

Since 1996, Massachusetts has had a law on the books that’s one of the harshest in the nation, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for Fair Sentencing for Youth. Unlike nearly every other state in the country, Massachusetts requires a trial in the adult criminal court for anyone who is 14 or older and charged with murder. Since Chism has been arraigned as an adult and will be tried in an adult court, there is no mechanism for the current case to be moved into the juvenile court system.

This is particularly hard to swallow for many reasons. One is that Massachusetts is known as a leader in juvenile justice. “Massachusetts has statewide juvenile courts, well-trained judges, excellent juvenile court clinics, a juvenile defense bar, and one of the best Department of Youth Services in the country,” said Josh Dohan, director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. He pointed out that much of the groundbreaking research on adolescent development has come out of the University of Massachusetts, and cited the state’s new “Raise the Age” law, which includes 17-year-olds in the juvenile system excluding those accused of murder.

Naoka Carey, executive director of the education and advocacy agency Citizens for Juvenile Justice, explained that sentencing any youth as a juvenile does not mean holding him or her any less accountable. “We can’t proceed in a world where we pretend they aren’t kids because whether or not you try them as adults, their brains are still not developed,” Carey said. “They are subject to peer influences in ways adults aren’t, and they don’t yet have life experience to deal with influences such as growing up in violent communities.”

Advocates like Carey point out another catch-22 for Massachusetts that could come into play in Chism’s case. In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to impose a mandatory life without parole sentence for those younger than 18 at the time of the crime. Essentially, the Court struck down all statutes that require a child to be sentenced to die in prison; in Massachusetts, that means juveniles convicted of first-degree murder who are automatically sentenced to life without the eligibility of parole. Currently, there are 62 such prisoners behind bars now caught up in this insane limbo. They’re awaiting the result of a decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court—expected in December or January—that will not only have implications for the fate of those 62, but will answer many critical questions about sentencing in Massachusetts. To Chism, life without parole could certainly pose a problem since, as The Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Youth states, our life without parole law for juveniles has essentially been ruled “illegal.”

And then there’s the problem of what happens when juveniles actually get to prison. Put simply, exactly what kind of punishment Massachusetts decides for its youth has great bearing on who they eventually become as adults. If sentenced to adult prisons, teens are more vulnerable for suicide, depression, and illnesses such as asthma; they make up a largely disproportionate total of prison rapes; and they’re often kept in protective custody, which is essentially solitary confinement, according to Carey.

Dohan pointed out that in national polls across the country, “… the vast majority want kids to be held accountable, not in a way that ruins the rest of their lives, but so they can succeed back in the community. They should be in school, getting skills and other kinds of programs such as anger management, and alcohol and substance abuse counseling.”

This means that the best option for juveniles is the juvenile system—not adult prisons. Carey and her organization are hoping that one of the six or so bills in the Legislature might make a difference in trying and sentencing juveniles as adults, and bring Massachusetts in line with the Supreme Court’s decision. But all of this takes time, and it’s unclear at this point how any proposed changes will affect Chism’s case.

But the advocates are clear on the best way to treat juveniles such as Chism.“No one is the same person at 30 that they were at 14,” Carey said. “Given that we know adolescents change, our laws have to provide for some meaningful possibility to show that they deserve to come back into society.”