Massachusetts lawmakers are close on a bill that, if passed as law will treat seventeen year olds as juveniles. The proposal has passed in the Massachusetts House and Senate and now awaits reconciliation through a conference committee. The governor has drafted a similar law and there is optimism that the bill will be on his desk for approval by the end of the month. As of now, seventeen year olds in Massachusetts are treated as adults when it comes to being charged with committing crimes. It doesn’t matter how severe the offense is nor are the circumstances of the crime considered prior to bringing criminal charges. The current law is simply terrible. Massachusetts is one of only eleven states in the country currently treating seventeen year olds as adults. The federal government treats seventeen year olds as juveniles.
The proposed Massachusetts law would not override the youthful offender law. That statute, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 119 Section 52 et seq. provides for special treatment for people being prosecuted between the ages of fourteen and seventeen…in certain circumstances. Typically the youthful offender law pertains to crimes committed involving serious bodily harm. Thus, the proposed legislation would have no effect on Massachusetts Violent Crimes or Massachusetts Sex Crimes committed by seventeen year olds.
So as a Massachusetts Criminal Lawyer here is what I see as being wrong with the current law. Seventeen year olds are still kids. They are primarily in high school. They make mistakes. They experiment with alcohol and drugs. They may drink and drive. They will express their curiosity through activities deemed criminal. In addition to being prosecuted by the courts schools have a way of punishing kids for committing these crimes now. They get suspended. They get kicked out of extra-curricular activities or off of their sports teams. Even worse, they get their names and sometimes pictures in the local papers for doing something wrong.
Here is something else. There are over 2900 seventeen year olds prosecuted each year in Massachusetts. These kids might end up criminal records as a result of a single criminal incident. They will have difficulty getting into some colleges. Their applications will be flagged. They will have trouble getting certain jobs. Countless times each year parents of seventeen year olds that I represent express concerns about how certain methods of resolving the case will be viewed by schools or employers. The answer to those questions is not easy. Massachusetts CORI laws permit perspective employers access to criminal histories depending on the nature of the business. For instance, people working with children or in health care are more vulnerable to perspective employer CORI access. And how many seventeen year olds know what they “want to do when they grow up”?
I have more thoughts on the current law. Juvenile detention facilities treat inmates much different from adult facilities. Adult facilities punish and isolate. They do not rehabilitate. They aren’t funded for rehabilitation right now…at least not enough. Juvenile correctional centers educate. They provide counseling services. They offer mental health treatment. They emphasize getting back into society in a productive manner.