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Senate, House Approve Bill to Raise the Age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction

By contributor,

The Massachusetts legislature today passed legislation to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility in Massachusetts from 17 to 18 years old, Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) announced. Raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction brings the Commonwealth’s approach to young criminal offenders in line with most other states, recent developmental research and many other legal age limits in the Commonwealth.

“I have fought for many years to make this change a reality,” Senator Spilka said. “Teenagers have unique developmental needs, and our juvenile justice system plays a critical role in helping them get back on track. Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction will increase public safety and provide teenagers with the age-appropriate rehabilitation and support services they need.”

The bill amends current law requiring all 17-year-old persons accused of a crime to be automatically tried as adults in criminal court, regardless of the circumstances or severity of the offense. Thirty-nine other states and the federal government set the age of adult criminal jurisdiction at 18 years old. Nearly every other law in Massachusetts, including laws setting the minimum age for voting and for serving on a jury, also assumes 18 years old to be the age of adulthood.

Scientific and sociological research on adolescent development consistently shows little justification for treating 17-year-olds as adults. Teenagers are not fully mature, and they lack important self-control, impulse control and decision-making capacities. 17-year-olds are more similar to the younger teens currently in the juvenile justice system, and they are arrested for similar offenses – generally minor, non-violent crimes.

“The 17-year-olds in our state’s adult criminal justice system are often still in school and still living at home with their parents. These teenagers are not adults – they are developmentally much more like the younger teenagers in the juvenile justice system, and their crimes are often the same types of offenses,” said Spilka.

The juvenile court system in Massachusetts focuses on rehabilitation services and support, and school attendance and parental involvement are mandatory. When 17-year-olds are prosecuted in the adult system, they are more likely to re-offend and to re-offend by committing more serious crimes. Compared with teenagers in the juvenile justice system, youth in the adult system receive significantly less adequate education, mental health treatment and age-appropriate rehabilitative programming. They are also at a greater risk for suicide and sexual abuse while in confinement, and they face serious barriers to future employment, education and housing due to their adult criminal records.

Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction also allows the Commonwealth to comply with recent changes in the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). New PREA regulations require detention facilities and court systems to provide “sight and sound separation” between adult inmates and minors, to better protect young inmates from rape and sexual assault. In order to comply with these federal regulations and keep 17-year-olds separate from adult inmates, Massachusetts would have to implement expensive staffing and construction changes to adult facilities. Including 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system saves the state money by eliminating the need for costly compliance measures.

With juvenile crime rates in Massachusetts at historic lows, the juvenile court system and the Department of Youth Services have the capacity to absorb 17-year-olds.

The bill now awaits the Governor’s signature.