Why Massachusetts’ Age-Raise Matters

Massachusetts has long had a good reputation for its low reliance on secure settings and for its development-minded approach to secure services. It will now include 17-year-olds, who have long been considered adults in the Bay State, in its juvenile justice system.

It is, of course, a major victory for juvenile advocates in the state. And it follows on the heels of a similar shift in Illinois, which added 17-year-old misdemeanants to the mix in 2010 and then 17-year-old felons this July.

It is the reason why Massachusetts raised its age of jurisdiction that could be of significance in other states. As the legislation made its way toward Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk, Andy Metzger of the Dorchester Reporter described (presumably from background) the impetus:

If it becomes law, the change will head off a new federal law set to go into effect in August that would require those under 18 to be segregated from the rest of the inmate population at adult corrections facilities, according to lawmakers.

The law Metzger refers to is the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which passed a decade ago and promised strict federal standards protecting against sexual violence in corrections facilities.

The federal standards only took effect this year, and they include a major one related to juveniles. Any juvenile convicted in adult court and confined in an adult correctional facility now has to be separated from adult inmates at all times. And – big and here – that cannot be accomplished by sticking juveniles into solitary confinement.

Youth Services Insider knows from discussions among Beltway juvenile advocates that this was something they pushed hard for, and the primary goal was not to protect juveniles in adult jails in prison. The real prize would be convincing governors and corrections agencies that it wasn’t even worth trying to comply with that PREA standard; just stop housing juveniles in adult facilities.

There are really two ways to accomplish that. One way would be to simply hold juvenile offenders in juvenile facilities until they turned 18, which a number of states including California already do. Another is to start including more of its older teenagers in the juvenile justice system.

Here is a list of the remaining 10 states who count certain minors as adults without exception:

  • 16- and 17-Year Olds Are Adults: New York, North Carolina
  • 17-Year-Olds Are Adults: Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin

As we’ve reported here before, it’s still a bit of a mystery how many states will comply with PREA, and what exactly the punishment will be for those who do not. But for those hoping the standards might drive broader changes in juvenile confinement, Massachusetts represents an early feather in the cap.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.