Legislature Considers Raising Juvenile Justice Age

Brandon Kennedy went to jail for 28 months on drug charges. (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

BOSTON — Massachusetts is one of 13 states where criminal cases involving 17-year-olds are handled in the adult justice system rather than juvenile justice system. But youth advocates are pressing state lawmakers to change that and keep offenders in the juvenile system until they’re 18.

“I was the only 17-year-old when I first went in. I was the only 17-year-old,” said Brandon Kennedy, who is now 22. He went to jail for 28 months on drug charges and he said he learned a lot from the experience.

“You’re with guys who might never come home, who don’t got nothing to live for,” he said. “Every day they’re in a bad mood. It’s really different. It changed me a lot. I don’t joke around all the time with people, because you never know what kind of mood they’re in, stuff like that.”

Kennedy is among an estimated 500 17-year-olds who are sent to adult jails or prisons in Massachusetts every year. He said for the most part, he spent his days in jail playing poker or watching TV because there wasn’t much to do.

“When you’re in jail, they might give you a couple anger management classes, or a GED class or a barber class. Other than that, there’s really nothing you can do to rehabilitate yourself,” Kennedy said.

A recent report indicates that there’s a 47 percent greater likelihood of a teen being arrested again if the adolescent is charged in the adult system versus the juvenile system.

“State prisons are nothing more than violence training schools,” said psychologist Frank Dicataldo, a former evaluator for the Department of Youth Services. He was among those who testified before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee Tuesday in favor of the bill that would increase the age of criminal responsibility in Massachusetts to 18. He said 17-year-olds don’t belong in adult jails.

“These are places where they’re exposed to older, more sophisticated, more mature, often hardened anti-social adults. It’s a place where they become socialized in violent behavior,” Dicataldo said.

A recent Citizens for Juvenile Justice report indicates that there’s a 47 percent greater likelihood of a teen being arrested again if the adolescent is charged in the adult system versus the juvenile system. The report also said younger inmates are more likely to be sexually victimized.

And youth advocates say society has changed since 17 became the age of adult criminal responsibility. Robert Kinscherff, director of forensic studies at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, said state lawmakers increased the age from 16 a long time ago.

“When people were looking at child labor laws, it aligned with the thinking at the time. It’s not a decision that the Legislature has made or thought about in at least 150 years,” Kinscherff said.

The bill’s supporters say 80 percent of 17-year-olds are charged with minor offenses and even if the legislation passes, a judge could still send a case to adult court — as is done now in homicide cases — for those even younger than 17.

But Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said an adolescent now would only go to jail for serious charges. He also argues that the juvenile system is overburdened.

“Our experience is that the commonwealth doesn’t have the necessary resources even today to deal with the juveniles in the system,” Sampson said. “I would be concerned that if there was a big increase in the number of clients, they would be further burdened and unable to provide services.”

But statistics show juvenile crime is down. The number of children committed to the Department of Youth Services has dropped 61 percent in the last decade.

Kennedy said that although he was able to turn his life around and is now in college, if he had stayed in the juvenile system, his life might be different now.

“Once you get charged as an adult it messes everything up. It’s hard to get jobs, loans. It just changes everything. It kind of messes up your life,” he said.

A similar bill is also before a Senate committee.

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