Tour Highlights How U.S. And European Countries Differ On Young Criminal Offenders

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The DYS facility in Middleton (Courtesy of the Baker administration)
The DYS facility in Middleton (Courtesy of the Baker administration)

The group walked through gleaming hallways and landscaped grounds. They walked into a large gymnasium, and the guests said they were impressed.

"In Croatia, we do not have such brand new institutions," said Lana Peto Kujundžić, a juvenile judge in Croatia. "They are all old and they do not have so many spaces."

Kujundžić was among four visitors from Europe recently touring a Massachusetts Department of Youth Services — or DYS — facility in Middleton. The three-year-old space accommodates up to 45 criminal offenders in their early 20s.

Many European countries have created different ways of handling this population.

Kujundžić says aside from the facility, what's most different about the way the United States deals with its young criminal offenders is philosophy. The judge says in her country, young offenders might live at a facility to receive specialized counseling — but then go elsewhere for other services.

"We have trained persons who are dealing with these children," she said. "We have only one closed institution and other institutions are open, so you are not [locked] in. ... You are going outside for education, for example, to go to school. You can deal with your friends outside in the town. You're just living in the institution."

A room at the Middleton DYS facility (Deborah Becker/WBUR)
A room at the Middleton DYS facility (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

In Massachusetts, the age for adult criminal responsibility increased to 18 from 17 just a few years ago, and it may increase again. In some European countries, the age by which an offender goes into the adult system is much older, and that depends on the country and the crime.

Another European visitor, Andrea Ritter, a German judge who sits on the European Council for Juvenile Justice, admired posters that featured questions such as: "What happened?" "What do you need to do to make things right?"

"These are the key questions to make them reflect," she said, "what happened and what they can do better in future."

A key difference between the U.S. system and hers, Ritter says, is the notion of punishment. As a judge, she says she is part of a team — working with social workers, counselors and even victims in a process that tries to determine what led a young offender astray and what might be needed to get them back on track.

One thing that particularly struck the European guests was the racial makeup at the Middleton DYS facility.

"You lock in the blacks, huh? Have you seen a white prisoner?" asked Dr. Jörg Jesse, with the European Organization of Prison and Correctional Services. "As far as I know, Massachusetts is a state with a huge white majority. Someone said they saw one white prisoner. I haven't seen one white prisoner — that's a bit depressing."

DYS says of the 787 committed young people it served in 2018, 18% were Caucasian, 26% black and almost 46% Hispanic.

DYS Commissioner Peter Forbes says he doesn't control who ends up in his system, but he does make sure a young offender is treated appropriately.

"We're looking in the mirror internally to make sure we're being fair," Forbes said. "There's only so much we can do about the front door and who comes in the front door."

Forbes has met these European guests before; he was part of a U.S. group that visited youth facilities in Germany last year. Forbes says he continues to be inspired by the German focus on rehabilitation and education.

"They have, say, a wood shop or welding shop, like you'd see in a wealthy, regional voc-tech school," he said. "We don't have anything like that."

Forbes' considerations are practical, as his system may soon take in young adults. Massachusetts lawmakers are considering raising the age at which a criminal offender would enter the adult system.

Although that did not ultimately pass as part of last year's criminal justice reforms, a task force is reviewing whether to include 18- to 20-year-olds in the juvenile justice system. The task force is expected to make its recommendations to the Legislature this month.

This segment aired on June 11, 2019.


Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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