House was unanimous on important criminal justice reform for youth
A significant piece of legislation pertaining to our criminal justice system recently passed the House of Representatives. Formally called “An Act to Expand to Juvenile Jurisdiction, Increase Public Safety and Protect Children From Harm,” the measure raises the age at which a young offender will be prosecuted as an adult to 18 from 17. Not only did I vote for the legislation, but I am a co-sponsor and was proud to see this pass the House unanimously.
Massachusetts is one of a distinct minority of states that tries 17-year-olds as adults automatically. In fact, 39 other states already prosecute 17-year-olds in their juvenile systems. While Massachusetts is ahead of the curve on many important public policy debates, on this we are quite clearly behind the times. Other states have taken the lead we are now following for a number of important reasons.
Studies show that youthful offenders are more likely to become repeat offenders if they are incarcerated with the general adult prison population. In that tough setting, youthful inmates are often exposed to hardened repeat offenders, a culture of violence and a mindset of criminality. To combat that problem, one of the fundamental goals of the juvenile justice system is to address the reason the young person has committed a crime and rehabilitate rather than merely punish. If we can turn around the lives of these young people, preventing recidivism and a revolving door through our criminal justice system, the benefit to these young people and the savings to taxpayers will be enormous. Statistics show that the vast majority of these criminal charges (at least 80 percent) are for relatively minor offenses. We need to prevent a night of bad decisions by an immature young person from causing permanent damage to their lives.
Another valuable aspect of the law is that it keeps parents involved in the process should their child be arrested. Under current law, because 17-year-olds are treated as adults, parents need not be notified if their high school age child has been arrested. Recent polling has found that well over 90 percent of Massachusetts parents oppose this and want the law to provide that they must be notified if their child were arrested.
Also worth noting is that youthful offenders incarcerated in the adult system are more likely to be the victims of violence by other inmates, including sexual assault. The thought of a young person – incarcerated in the adult system for a property crime such as theft – being raped should be repugnant to all of us no matter our political leanings. This legislation will help prevent that from happening and move Massachusetts toward compliance with the federal law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Important to gaining my support, the legislation provides that serious crimes committed by young people can still be met with adult sentences. So the public need not worry that somehow this legislation will offer a loophole for youthful offenders who are perpetrators of serious crimes. In addition to the discretion for judges to mete out an adult-length prison term for any serious crime, murder charges would go automatically to the adult system.
There is another reason for all of us to feel good about this legislation: As noted, it passed unanimously, 154-0. Just think of that for a moment in light of the high level of dysfunction and acrimony we are seeing in Washington. I am pleased to report that the Massachusetts House of Representatives is a place where progress can still be made on important issues, where we can govern ourselves sensibly and move society forward. Is this because the Republicans in the State House have capitulated and abandoned their values? Not at all. Rather, both sides realize that, while key differences between parties remain on many fronts, where there is common ground we must act rather than squander our chance to make a positive difference for the society we share.
Next up, the legislation will need to pass the Senate. I am hopeful that my fellow legislators in that body will adopt this common-sense reform to our criminal justice system and we can get it to the governor to be signed into law. It is the right thing to do.
Dave Rogers is state representative for the 24th Middlesex District, which includes parts of Cambridge and Arlington, as well as all of Belmont. He welcomes questions or comments and can be reached by calling (617) 722-2400 or by sending e-mail to [email protected].