By James Niedzinski
---- — A bill that would enable 17-year-olds to be treated as juveniles rather than adult-level criminals in most cases in Massachusetts, has taken a significant step closer to law.
A version of a House bill pushed by Rep. Brad Hill, who represents Manchester, cleared the Senate earlier this week after gaining initial House approval earlier this year. The bills will now be reconciled through conference committee.
Currently in Massachusetts, 17-year-olds accused of a crime are treated as adults, regardless of the circumstances or severity of the offense.
Hill, the Ipswich Republican whose district also includes his hometown, Hamilton and Wenham, Topsfield and part of Rowley said there are multiple reasons he got behind the idea.
Hill said that while he was helping out with Melissa’s Law, also known as the three strikes law for habitual offenders, he began to realize the effects prison can have on 17-year-olds, who face rape, overcrowded prisons and other issues behind prison walls.
“My eyes were open; we needed to address that situation,” he said.
Thirty-nine other states and the federal government all use 18 as the age of adult criminal jurisdiction. And because all 17- and 18-year-olds have to be segregated from other prisoners under federal law, smaller municipalities have a tough time finding the space to separate those in custody, Hill said.
The bill would also help 17-year-olds get the help they need, while protecting their names from being made public in many cases, as well.
“It was clear to me we needed to do something,” he said.
Every case involving a 17-year-old does not always result in the person being tried as an adult. Anyone between the ages of 17 and 21 can be classified as a “youthful offender” in Essex County.
The youthful diversion program differs from person to person, Hill said, noting that it would still be up to the district attorney’s office whether to pursue trying a 17-year-old as a criminal or juvenile.
The bill would not, for example, change the law mandating that 17-year-olds accused of murder or other violent crimes be tried and sentenced in adult court.
Supporters of the bill note that, in many other matters in the state — including voting and serving on a jury — 18 is the age of adulthood.
While the Senate passed a slightly different version of the bill with different technical aspects, a larger scope and spotlighting specific crimes, the Legislature will appoint a conference committee and then vote on a finished measure, Hill said.
Hill, however, said he is confident the bill will get full approval, considering Gov. Deval Patrick submitted similar legislation earlier this year.
“I am optimistic within the next two or three weeks, we’ll see it on the governor’s desk for the signature,” he said.
Local legislators State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, are also among more than two dozen petitioners of the bill.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.