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Senate Passes Legislation to Raise the Age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction

By contributor,

The Senate on Tuesday, in its latest effort to improve the administration of justice in the Commonwealth, passed legislation that raises the upper limit of juvenile court jurisdiction in Massachusetts by one year from 17 to 18 – making our treatment of children in the judicial system consistent with our other laws.

“This change is recognition of the fact that 17-year-old adolescents are NOT adults – they are still children and lack adult maturity, particularly with respect to their judgment and impulse control,” said Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland).

Currently in Massachusetts, all 17-year-olds accused of a crime are automatically treated as adults, regardless of the circumstances or severity of the offense. Thirty-nine other states and the federal government use 18 as the age of adult criminal jurisdiction. In almost all other legal matters in Massachusetts 18-years-old is officially the age of adulthood. It is the minimum age required for voting, entering into a contract, and serving on a jury.

The juvenile justice system is specifically designed to deal with adolescents, and using the resources of that court there is a greater chance of successful societal outcomes than is likely to be achieved in the adult system. Children in the juvenile system attend school and participate in other rehabilitative programs and parental notification and involvement is mandatory.

“Our current system undermines public safety and reduces the likelihood of positive outcomes for the juveniles involved,” said Spilka. “Massachusetts has a very competent juvenile court system that successfully partners with the department of youth services to give the children involved in court their best chance of a successful future.”

Compared to their counterparts in the juvenile justice system, youth prosecuted in the adult system are more likely to reoffend, to reoffend more quickly, and to reoffend by committing more serious crimes. In our present system these adolescents are mixed with older and more serious offenders who often have a negative influence. These children are at a greater risk for suicide and physical and sexual abuse when in confinement and face serious barriers to future employment, education, and housing as a result of their adult criminal record.

Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction will also save the Commonwealth money. Recent changes under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) create costly compliance measures if we continue incarcerating 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system. Under the PREA changes, all detention facilities and court systems would have to separate adults and 17-year-olds by sight and sound, which would mean the creation of new prison facilities, structural adjustments to existing facilities, and increased prison staff. Failure to meet the standards set out by PREA could result in financial penalties and the risk of legal liability on adult facilities housing 17 year olds.

With juvenile crime rates at historic lows, the juvenile court and the department of youth services has the capacity to absorb 17-year-olds. Over the past five years, juvenile court filings have plummeted from around 62,000 to current levels of about 33,000 filings. This decline is seen across the juvenile justice system, with arraignments, caseloads, and detention rates all seeing about a 50% decrease since 2007.

The legislation does not change the law mandating that a 17-year-old accused of murder be tried and sentenced in adult court and it does not prevent a 17-year-old accused of other serious crimes from being indicted as a youthful offender and given an adult sentence.

The bill passed will now go to the House for concurrence.