Hampden DA behind state’s first court for young adults

Gulluni hopes intensive probation, not incarceration, will reduce recidivism

HAMPDEN COUNTY District Attorney Anthony Gulluni is on an ambitious mission to give young mid-level and serious criminal offenders a second chance.

Gulluni is a member of a statewide task force studying the issue of raising the minimum age at which younger offenders are tried in the adult court system beyond 18. He opposes the idea, which is favored by lots of criminal justice reform advocates, but Gulluni is launching another approach aimed at helping younger adults in the justice system. In September, Hampden County will open a special young adult court targeting those aged 18 to 24. The court will offer mid- to higher-level offenders an option that avoids jail through intensive probation supervision. It’s a different way, Gulluni says, to reckon with the same thing that is driving raise-the-age advocates – growing evidence that brain development and reasoning skills aren’t fully formed until people reach their mid-twenties.

Elected in 2014 at age 34, Gulluni became the youngest DA in the Commonwealth when he took office. Now in his second term, Gulluni strikes a balance between aggressive prosecution of violent and repeat offenders while promoting new criminal justice solutions that don’t rely on incarceration.

Gulluni previously worked for the Salvation Army, as assistant district attorney, and in the law department for the city of Springfield, where he was born and still lives. I spoke with him in early August to learn about plans for what will be the first young adult court in New England and only the fourth in the country. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

 

COMMONWEALTH: Tell us a little bit about this young adult group. What makes it different?

ANTHONY GULLUNI: The brain science research that’s come out in the last five to 10 years has made it clear the brain continues to develop into the mid-twenties. There’s a lack of understanding of long-term consequences. Decision-making is not what it is for older adults, and so forth. This is a hot topic in criminal justice – what are we doing for this young adult population?

CW: What’s the plan?

GULLUNI: A couple of years ago, I formed a working group with a number of partner agencies, including the Hampden Sheriff’s Department, [the nonprofit] Roca, police departments, probation, the trial courts. We really got some broad-based support to sit and talk about the issue of emerging adults in our system and what we could do better. What’s emerged, in large part, is the young adult court that we’re scheduled to unveil and begin in September.

CW: This young adult court – has it been done anywhere else in the United States?

GULLUNI: There’s one in Brooklyn, New York. There’s one in the Chicago area, and there’s one in San Francisco. As a matter of fact, I travelled to San Francisco two weeks ago with a team, including a judge of the trial court, district court, members of the probation department, and [people from] my office, to observe and have conversations with people involved with their young adult court. That court started in 2015. We would be, as far as we know, the fourth in the country.

CW: Where would the court be situated, and would it meet every day?

GULLUNI: It’s going to meet once a week, out of Springfield District Court, at least initially. That encompasses Springfield, West Springfield, and Longmeadow. It’s our busiest district court in Hampden County, and it is traditionally the first or second busiest court in the entire Commonwealth.

CW: Do you have a sense of how many 18- to 24-year-olds enter that court system?

GULLUNI: I don’t know specifically, off hand, but it’s a sizable number, probably around 20 to 25 percent of our population in adult court.

CW: Who will you target for the young adult court?

GULLUNI: We’re focused on mid- and high-risk offenders, which makes it really unique compared to any of these young adult courts across the country. We’re envisioning that we’re going to have offenders who have a juvenile court record and probably have an adult court record which precedes the particular offense for which they’ll be in the young adult court.

CW: What kind of crimes will they have committed?

GULLUNI: I am as willing as our partners to deal with young men and young women who have serious offenses, including gun offenses and higher-level drug offenses, drug distribution and possession with intent cases that would ordinarily land them in jail.

CW: How will the cases be handled?

GULLUNI: It will be a 12- to 18-month program. After they plead guilty on an offense, the young man or woman would enter a probation sentence, and the probation department would supervise these individuals. On a case-by-case basis there would be essentially an individual care plan, and it would involve everything from them pursuing their diploma or equivalency degree, and then college education or credits or some sort of career. It would include behavioral modification therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, substances counseling where appropriate, and mental health counseling where appropriate. Ultimately, at one of the last stages for some of the participants, I’m really committed to the idea of career training.

CW: Are there any educational institutions that are on board for this? Why the focus on careers and not just jobs?

GULLUNI: We’ve already engaged with local community colleges, three in particular, who would be able to provide college credits or allow them to work toward a certificate program. I’m really focused on career training, not just job training, because I think we understand the psychology and the reality for these young people – that they have to have a better alternative than being out on the streets and very often selling drugs with gang activity. We’ve got to give them hope for their futures. And that’s got to be a real, dignified career where they can have gainful employment.

CW: So the person would always have to plead guilty?

GULLUNI: Yes. There’s going to be some situations where they’re going to plead guilty to a lesser offense. I am willing to take on cases with mandatory minimum sentences [and break down the charge to something without mandatory incarceration], and some of those exist for district court cases.

CW: So you’ve got the probation piece, education, job training – is there anything else we’re missing?

GULLUNI: The last piece of it: We would file a legal mechanism to erase that conviction on their record. As we know, especially with felony convictions, those are often barriers to educational opportunities, scholarships, work opportunities, and so forth.

CW: Will this be a voluntary program, or will people within that age range be funneled into that court system?

GULLUNI: Right now, it’s going to be an opt-in program. Defendants will be charged, and then lawyers will be alerted if their clients fit the bill. We’ve already produced some pamphlets that we’re going to distribute as widely as possible so lawyers who deal with defendants can be aware of exactly what this is about. So they could say, “Hey, Mr. Smith, you’re in a jam here. This is an opportunity for you. Why don’t you take a look at this.” But it’s voluntary at this point. There’s obviously opportunities to change that and adapt it to the circumstances as we move forward.

CW: Does anyone need to be hired for this? Is anyone in your office going to have to take on a workload more related to young adults?

GULLUNI: As we often do in my industry, we adapt and people take on more responsibilities. But we do have some grant funding. We have some money to hire a coordinator who will work out of my office on identifying offenders to come into the court and work on the logistics, things like that. It’s going to require at least one assistant DA to work on this for some significant portion of her or his time. I’m willing to invest in this because I really believe in it.

CW: Who else is involved in this?

GULLUNI: The probation department and Springfield district court. State probation commissioner [Ed] Dolan has been helpful. Chief Justice Paul Dawley of the district court has been phenomenal, and now the regional administrative judge, Maureen Walsh, who is in my neck of the woods, is just absolutely great. She and I traveled out to San Francisco to see their court. She’s committed to this idea and will preside over the court.

CW: Has there been proof from some of these other young adult courts that this reduces recidivism?

GULLUNI: They tout it as a successful program. There are definitely statistics out there, but I can’t cite them right now. But as we look at our own recidivism numbers, in that population right now it’s very, very high. I’m against raising the age [for adult court] beyond 18 for a number of reasons. But I think we can do a better job with this population of 18 to 24-year olds [within adult corrections].

CW: Why are you against raising the minimum age for adult court beyond 18?

GULLUNI: I think there are distinct differences between this population of 18- to 24-year-olds, and fully formed adults. That is the basis from which we are starting this court in many ways. But I also think there are distinct differences between the 18- to 24-year-old population and the 12, 13 to 17-year-old population. Some of those are logistical. I just think putting [young adults] in with a 13 or 14-year-old into a [juvenile] court system, potentially into a detention system, is just a bad idea. There are ways to address the problem other than to lump them in with much younger children.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

CW: Who introduced the idea for the court?

GULLUNI: My first assistant DA had been going to Chelsea for a working group meeting, and came back saying we should figure something out with this young adult population that we know is in some ways distinct. We see a lot of these young men, in particular, in my district of Springfield are just growing up with very little supports around them, and they’re coming into court with trajectories that are almost unavoidable. They have juvenile court offenses, district court offenses, and then it’s superior court, and then they end up in state prison throughout their twenties. I want to find a way to interrupt that cycle, interrupt that trajectory, especially for those offenders at that precipice. They’ve committed the offenses, they might be gang-involved or inclined toward violence – and we’re mindful of public safety first and foremost always – but I wanted to find a way to interrupt that cycle.