Task force punts on raising the age of juvenile offenders
Panel focuses on expanding programs for ‘emerging adults’
A STATE TASK FORCE decided against taking a position on the issue of whether or not to raise the age of jurisdiction for the juvenile justice system, but is urging wider adoption of programs that focus on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.
The 21-member task force on “emerging adults” in the state criminal justice system, which brought together district attorneys, defense lawyers, advocates, law enforcement officials, and court administrators, could not reach agreement on the controversial issue of raising the age at which offenders enter the adult court system. But the panel embraced a range of policies and programs that treat young adults differently than older offenders in the system.
“There was no consensus on whether the age should be raised,” said Rep. Paul Tucker, who co-chaired the task force with Sen. Cynthia Creem. “We did a very good piece of work by putting a range of options in place for consideration of the Legislature.”
A growing body of research points to evidence that brain development is not fully complete until people are well into their 20s. Studies show young adult offenders are the most likely group to commit new crimes, they make poor decisions because their brains aren’t fully developed, but also that they’re also more likely to turn their lives around with the right services and support.
That has fueled calls for criminal justice system reform that would raise the age at which defendants are handled in the adult court system, which is currently 18 in Massachusetts. The state Senate endorsed raising the age to 19 in its version of the sweeping criminal justice reform bill passed two years ago, but that provision was dropped in negotiations with the House. The final bill called instead for creation of the task force to study the issue.
The task force recommends an expansion of programming by community organizations like Roca and UTEC that work with young former and current offenders. The report also says the state should consider bringing more of the types of services the Department of Youth Services offers in the juvenile system to younger offenders in the adult corrections system.
DYS serves youthful offenders up to age 22, although individuals 18 or older at the time of an alleged crime aren’t eligible to be housed in DYS facilities.
“DYS has high-quality programming that is appropriate for emerging adults,” said the report, pointing to education services and substance abuse treatment within the juvenile justice agency. The report recommends more access for emerging adults to higher education programming that can be applied toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
The report recommends expansion of current sessions in adult court in the state that allow judges discretion to refer some cases involving younger defendants 18 and older to juvenile court.
Support for that recommendation, however, was not universal. Leon Smith, who heads the advocacy group Citizens for Juvenile Justice and was a member of the task force, said allowing young adults to be moved back into the juvenile system by expanding judges’ discretion only exacerbates issues around racial discrimination by judges, especially for young black men.
The Middlesex effort involves a cellblock with programming structured around reducing recidivism for offenders under 25, with corrections officers trained in intervening in conflicts before resorting to traditional measures. There were 26 inmates on the block last fall, with a capacity for 75. Young men are referred to by their first names, have educational opportunities, therapy, and restorative justice programming. The reported noted that there is no such unit in the state for women, and voiced support for opening one.
The recent criminal justice reform debate on Beacon Hill isn’t the first time lawmakers have tackled the issue of what the maximum age should be for handling cases in the juvenile system. In 2013, the Legislature raised the upper age limit for cases in juvenile court from 16 to 17, but advocates have argued for raising it further.
In 2018, Vermont became the first state to raise the age up to 20. In South Carolina, a youthful offender program was extended to certain nonviolent crimes that were committed under the age of 25. Alabama has a program to allow individuals under 21 to petition to be tried as young offenders in juvenile court.
Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni, who sits on the task force, opposes raising the age and instead supports the development of young adult courts, something he has pioneered in Springfield District Court.
The court offers mid- to higher-level offenders an option that avoids jail through intensive probation supervision. It’s a different way, Gulluni says, to address growing recognition that brain development and reasoning skills aren’t fully formed until people reach their mid-twenties.
Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan, who also sat on the task force, didn’t take a stance on raising the age, calling it a “complex issue,” but said taking into account young adult development was essential to reforms in the criminal justice system.
She touted her office’s pre-arraignment diversion program, which has proven effective for rehabilitation and keeping young people from acquiring criminal records that can create barriers to employment, housing, voting, and education.
One prosecutor not on the task force has been quick to support raising the age. Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who was elected in 2018 on a strong reform platform, said last year she would support raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to as high as 20. “We’ve raised the age in the past and the sky didn’t fall.” she said of the 2013 shift from 16 to 17.
Her view is not shared by her fellow DAs. Nine of the state’s 11 district attorneys co-signed a letter to Senate leaders in 2017 objecting to the raise-the-age provision in the Senate criminal justice bill.
An official from the union representing corrections officers, Paul Faria of AFSCME Council 93, wrote to the task force chairs in November, saying any union support for raising the age would be conditional on ensuring that officers in the juvenile system get pay increases and benefits to put them on par with state or county adult corrections officers.
He warned that an influx of hundreds of young adults into the juvenile system would require updating existing policies around assaults on staff and new officer training to deal with an older age group.
Juvenile court caseloads have been steadily declining even with the cases added due to expansion of juvenile jurisdiction to include 17–year–olds. The state experienced a 23 percent decrease in juvenile arrests, and a 53 percent decrease in arrests of 18 to 20–year–olds from 2013 to 2019.The task force met 10 times over the course of nearly a year, hearing testimony from different stakeholders, including formerly incarcerated young adults, court officials, and taking a trip to a youth services facility in Roslindale.
“I think the recommendations are strong and on target,” said Maryann Davis, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and task force member. “They acknowledge that the biopsychosocial development of both older youth and young adults are not yet fully mature.“