Juvenile justice system can, and should, serve older youth

DYS case filings down 56 percent since 2009

I WAS A JUVENILE COURT JUDGE for 13 years, the Child Advocate for the Commonwealth for seven years, and the head of the Child and Youth Protection Unit in the Attorney General’s Office for two years. I regularly met young people who had already experienced several lifetimes’ worth of trauma. But their youth itself was a reason to hope, because young people can achieve great change, given the right opportunities. Based on that experience, and on considerable research in adolescent psychology, I am convinced that we should extend the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts in Massachusetts to include 18 to 20-year-olds.  

Committing older adolescents to the adult criminal system ignores that they are not adults in any meaningful developmental sense. Neuroscientists have shown that the brains of young people are still developing. The prefrontal cortex, which plays an essential part in self-regulation, is the last part of the brain to fully mature. Because their brains are still developing, they are particularly susceptible to the influence of peers and their environment.  

In other words, they have a deep capacity to change. That is why the juvenile justice system strives to give young people access to educational opportunities, community support and family engagement. Redirecting them to the adult system is a tragically wasted opportunity.  

But it is worse than that. An 18-year-old sent to an adult prison is still susceptible to the influence of peers and his environment. But such influences in an adult prison are almost entirely negative. The data proves it.  

In 2011, 76 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds released from county jails and adult prisons were brought back to court within three years, the highest recidivism rate of any age cohort in the Commonwealth. The recidivism rate for young people incarcerated in youth facilities was 26 percent, as opposed to 55 percent when they are jailed in adult facilities.  

Moreover, the opioid epidemic makes access to the juvenile justice system for older adolescents particularly important. A University of Michigan study showed that persons between ages 18 and 22 are more likely to report opioid use than any other age group. A quarter of 18 to 19-year-olds arrested in the Commonwealth are charged with substance-related offenses. The juvenile justice system provides several innovative addiction services not available in the adult system.   

Extending the juvenile justice system to older adolescents clearly makes sense. It will reduce crime and set many young people on a path to successful, law abiding adulthood, instead of embedding them in an often toxic adult prison culture. It is also doable. The Department of Youth Services already manages young people up to age 21, and the Commonwealth is blessed with several non-profit service providers whose programs for young adults are national models.   

The juvenile justice system has the capacity: Case filings for all types of juvenile court cases have decreased by 56 percent since 2009. Since Massachusetts ended the automatic prosecution of 17-year-olds as adults in 2013, juvenile arraignments have dropped by 57 percent.   

Meet the Author
Raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction makes sense based on everything we know about youths’ potential for change, recidivism rates and economics. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s doable.  

Gail Garinger is a former juvenile court judge, the first statewide Child Advocate and first director of the Child & Youth Protection Unit of the Massachusetts Attorney General Office.