The Massachusetts Legislature is moving closer to a significant change in the way youthful offenders are handled in the state’s juvenile justice system. And that’s a good thing.
A version of a House bill that would raise from 17 to 18 the age where young offenders could be prosecuted as adults cleared the Senate last week. We expect the House and Senate will now smooth over the differences in the two bills before a final vote and a signature from Gov. Deval Patrick.
The champion of the bill in the House, Republican state Rep. Brad Hill of Ipswich, was an early and dogged supporter of the state’s habitual offender law, better known as “Melissa’s Law.” He’s anything but soft on crime.
Hill told reporter James Niedzinski last week that while working on Melissa’s Law, he began to realize the effects prison can have on 17-year-olds, who face rape, mental abuse, gang pressure and other issues behind prison walls.
“It’s clear to me we needed to do something, said Hill, who has cited a Northeastern University study that showed youths placed in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to be rearrested for a violent offence than those placed in the juvenile system. Currently in Massachusetts, 17-year-olds accused of a crime are treated as adults, regardless of the circumstances or severity of the offense.
Neither the House nor Senate versions gloss over serious crimes. Local district attorneys would still be able to seek adult charges for major offenses, especially those involving violence. But the fact remains that most 17-year-olds arrested in Massachusetts are charged with nonviolent offenses, and they would still answer for those transgressions in juvenile court.