Massachusetts’ juvenile justice system will now include 17-year-olds, leaving just 10 states that view older minors as adults.
Gov. Deval Patrick (D) signed H. 1432, plainly called “An Act Expanding Juvenile Jurisdiction, yesterday.
“We are working hard to make the investments in education and job training to close achievement gaps and give every child the opportunity to succeed, said Patrick, in a statement issued after the signing that included comments from a slate of state legislators and youth advocates. “But whether we like it or not, some children still fall through the cracks and we must not give up on them.”
The law expands the delinquency and youthful offender jurisdiction of the juvenile courts to include persons who commit crimes when they were younger than 18. If a violent act has been committed, juvenile court judges can choose to impose adult sentences.
“This bill acknowledges that the brain development and maturity of a 17-year-old are legally important factors in addressing antisocial behavior and that the capacity of juveniles for rehabilitation exceeds that of adults,” said Chief Justice of the Juvenile Court Michael F. Edgerton.
Most states have exceptions that enable teens committed of serious crimes to be tried in adult court. But with the passage of the Massachusetts law, only ten view certain age groups of teens as adults for any criminal offense.
North Carolina and New York are the only states where both 16- and 17-year-olds are viewed as adults, although New York does handle some status offense cases for those teens in juvenile court. Eight other states view 17-year-olds as adults: Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.
Illinois included 17-year-old misdemeanants in the juvenile justice system in 2011, and in July passed a law that included 17-year-old felons as well.
“As a former social worker, I have seen firsthand the detrimental effect of sentencing 17-year-olds as adults and housing them with the general population,” said State Rep. James O’Day.
John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change