Task force weighs raising juvenile court age
Advocates say younger offenders ill-served in adult corrections system
FERNANDO WILLIAMS was just 14 when he entered the juvenile justice system.
Eleven years later, he’s gone through both the Department of Youth Services and, starting at 19, the Middlesex House of Correction. He has perspective on the differences between the juvenile and adult systems to offer to a state task force weighing whether to recommend raising the age for entry into the adult criminal justice system.
“My mom thinks that if I had been in juvie till I was 21, with active cases, that the juvenile system would have helped me more,” Williams said. He described support from youth case workers, consistent mental health services, and the absence of hard drugs in the juvenile system as reasons to keep young adults away from county corrections facilities or state prisons.
“County versus juvie, everything is different. In the juvie system they hear you, and listen to you,” he said. In the county system, “the COs don’t want to file paperwork for you to see a nurse if you need medical help,” he said of corrections officers in the adult system.
In 2013, lawmakers raised the upper age limit for cases in juvenile court from 16 to 17, but advocates argue more can be done.
The Senate endorsed raising the age further as part of the criminal justice reform debate last session, but that provision was dropped in negotiations with the House. Instead, the bill that was ultimately passed and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker called for a task force to study the issue and report its findings back to the Legislature by July 1.
A team of legislators, members of law enforcement, advocates, and doctors began meeting in January to discuss raising the age of jurisdiction for the juvenile court system.
Sana Fadel, deputy director of Boston-based Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said there’s a strong case for do so. “Eighteen to 24-year-olds have the worst outcomes in the criminal justice system,” she said.
Criminal justice reform advocates say the “emerging adult” population, which encompasses younger adults still in the midst of neurological development, can be better served in the juvenile system than by being sent into the adult prison population.
The concept of “emerging adult,” a phrase coined in 2000 by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, has led to a number of studies, including a 2017 report from the Harvard Kennedy School, demonstrating the human brain continues to develop far into a person’s 20s.
The Emerging Adults in the Criminal Justice System Task Force, co-chaired by Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem and Rep. Paul Tucker, is charged with examining the advisability of raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 18- to 20-year-olds as well as making recommendations for changes to make the adult criminal justice system more developmentally appropriate for young adults, aged 18 to 24.
Paul Faria is a member of the task force who has worked in corrections for more than 30 years and now works for AFSCME Council 93, which represents corrections officers. He said AFSCME is in favor of raising the age, but stressed the importance of “having proper planning and training in place.”
“DYS provides services rather than sending to state prison,” he said, calling the juvenile system “a lot more hands-on” in addressing offenders’ needs.
Newly-elected Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said 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.
“Science shows they’re still developing,” Rollins said of younger offenders. “At 18 you can vote and go to work and be drafted. When you’re 21 you can drink. But you don’t go to bed the night before and then miraculously become a person who can vote. These are just arbitrary numbers.”
Rollins’s view, however, is not universally 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.
As for efforts to deal separately with younger offenders who are in the adult system, Rollins lauded to a new program that Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins is implementing — the PEACE unit — at the South Bay House of Correction. The 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.
Williams, now 25, has spent the past two years working with Roca, a Chelsea nonprofit that works with young men who were previously incarcerated to gain life skills.
He’s working on his GED, is part in the organization’s transitional employment program, and has completed fork lift and Servsafe certifications. As Williams moves forward, he said he hopes things change in how the criminal justice system handles younger offenders.
“It’s not right for someone that young to live in those conditions,” he said, describing scenarios where 19-year-olds are housed with murderers serving life sentences or serial sexual offenders. “Kids are being subjected to that, and it’s going to change them into something else that they aren’t.”