Studying juvenile cutoff age, task force checks out DYS facility

Finds recidivism rates have dropped significantly

A STATE TASK FORCE TRYING TO DECIDE whether the cutoff age for juvenile criminal offenders should be raised above 18 traveled to a Department of Youth Services facility this week to hear first-hand what’s different about a correctional system designed for youthful offenders. 

What they learned at the Judge Connelly Youth Center in Roslindale was that education programs provided at the center combined with support services upon release have dramatically cut recidivism rates.   

“I couldn’t be more impressed by what I saw,” said Rep. Paul Tucker of Salem, the cochair of the Emerging Adults Task Force. The task force, created by legislation, is due to report by July 1 on whether the cutoff age should be raised and by how much. 

One of the key concerns is whether putting offenders who are 18, 19, 20, or 21 in an adult correctional setting leads to higher recidivism rates. At the Connelly Youth Center, DYS Commissioner Peter Forbes said a program providing support services in the first six months after release is showing great promise. 

Forbes said 24 percent of the incarcerated juveniles who participated in the Youth Engaged in Services, or YES, program when they were released from DYS in 2014 were back in the criminal justice system within 12 months. The rate for those who did not participate in YES was 27 percent. 

The most recent study statistics provided to Commonwealth Magazine of those released in 2016 showed significant improvement, with the recidivism rate for those participating in the YES program falling to 14 percent, compared to 26 percent for those who did not participate. 

Agency officials say that approximately 50 percent of incarcerated youth discharged from DYS are opting to engage in the voluntary YES program.  

Forbes said about 600 people were in DYS custody statewide last year. He said that the department is using therapy, education, and career planning to help them develop skills to avoid returning to a life of crime once they get out. They spend 5 ½ hours per day in classes, and the number of students taking colleges courses jumped from 16 in 2016 to 98 in 2018. Four colleges are offering online and face-to-face classes, including Bunker Hill and Holyoke Community Colleges.  

Komlen, who asked that his last name not be used, was formerly incarcerated at the Connelly Youth Center and returned for the task force presentation. He said he had dropped out of high school before coming to Connelly, where he finished the equivalent of a GED and took online classes offered by Bunker Hill Community College and Urban CollegeHe is about to transfer to UMass Lowell.  

“I’m just hoping to be an accountant,” he said. 

Leon Smith, a task force member who serves as the executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, which advocates for improvements to the juvenile justice system, said the agency is well equipped to handle an influx of new inmates if the cutoff age for youth criminal offenders is raised. 

“What they’re offering, and the work they’re doing shows me they’re very able and very capable to not just serve, but serve well, the young people, should we raise the age in Massachusetts, he said. 

Smith said DYS is already handling some inmates up to age 21 – primarily people waiting for court dates or youthful felony offenders who are incarcerated until they turn 21. Officials say the average age of those incarcerated at DYS is now 17.4. 

“We have a state agency that is already adequately providing services to an older population,” Smith said. 

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.

The focus on education at DYS is markedly different from a standard adult house of corrections, Smith said“It’s not just reducing recidivism but having juveniles leave these behaviors behind,” he said. “Education is an important piece of that.