Mass. House votes to curb practice of trying 17-year-olds as adults

The state House of Representatives voted unanimously last week to largely end the practice of trying 17-year-olds in adult criminal court, prompted in part by a federal law requiring younger inmates to be housed separately from adult prisoners so they are at less risk of sexual assault. Bill H1432 would bring Massachusetts in line with 38 other states that begin adult court jurisdiction at age 18.

The change, which now goes before the Senate and is supported by the Patrick administration, would still allow prosecutors to try 17-year-olds in adult court for serious crimes including murder, according to the State House News Service’s Andy Metzger, in a story that appeared in the Dorchester Reporter. Secretary of Public Safety and Security Andrea Cabral told the News Service that the change would help rehabilitation efforts of 17-year-old prisoners: “If having that group stay in DYS custody for one more year gives a person of that age another year of cognitive behavioral therapy or other programs or services designed for juveniles versus that person being in the adult system where they can take the option about whether or not they get involved in programming – that’s the difference.”

The Illinois Legislature passed a similar bill earlier this month, sending it to the governor’s office. That action came shortly after the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission released a report recommending the change. Raising the Age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction cites evidence that 17-year-olds processed through the adult criminal justice system have a higher recidivism rate than those in the juvenile system. It also reports that state prison inmates under the age of 18 are at higher risk of sexual abuse when placed with adult inmates — and that isolating 17-year-olds from other inmates raises the risk of suicide and cuts them off from rehabilitation programs.

The Illinois report also cites recent brain development research indicating that most 17-year-olds are still prone to “more impulsive, aggressive, and shortsighted decisions” than adults, and are “unable to make the same type of reasoned and responsible decisions we expect of adults.”

In two states, New York and North Carolina, individuals as young as 16 can be tried in adult court. A 2010 policy brief by the New York-based Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy urged an end to the practice:

Research has proven that youth housed in adult prisons are confronted with serious obstacles. They face the same penalties as adults, including life without parole. They receive little or no education, mental health treatment, or rehabilitative programming in adult prisons. Additionally, 16- and 17-year-olds acquire an adult criminal record that may significantly limit their future education and employment opportunities.
Sixteen and seventeen year-olds in adult prisons are at greater risk of assault and death. They are also more likely to re-offend than youth not exposed to the negative influences and toxic culture of the adult criminal system.

                    – Robert David Sullivan

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