Massachusetts lawmakers vote on juvenile court age

BY NICOLE VILLACRÉS '18 

Two years ago, Massachusetts’s lawmakers raised the maximum age for juveniles in court from 17 to 18, and now they are considering a proposal to further raise the age to 21. The increase would make Massachusetts the first state to raise the age past 18. Other states considering a shift include Vermont, Illinois and Connecticut, according to MassLive.

The proposal would not apply to serious offenders who are already exempt from the juvenile court age and tried as adults. State Senators and members of the Democratic Party, Karen Spilka and Cynthia Creem as well as State Representatives Evandro Cavalho and Kay Khan have sponsored the bill. Recent reports by the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, MassINC, Roca and the Council of State Governments have found that young adults, those between 18 and 21, are less mature than older adults, lack long term insight, are prone to riskier behavior and are easily influenced by peers, according to the Boston Herald. These findings have led the aforementioned Senators and Representatives to push for a shift because juvenile courts have more resources oriented toward restorative justice.

Restorative justice focuses on youth development by promoting positive outcomes and having the state act as a teacher and mentor. The idea that young adults need to feel in control of their own future drives this response, rather than a punitive reaction focusing solely on the crimes committed.

“If you go to a juvenile jail you’ll get the support that you need like education [and] help with life in general. When you’re in

an adult jail, they just send you there and you just wait until you’re done doing your time,” said Jeff Alvarez, a member of a Lowell-based nonprofit that empowers young adults, and those formally incarcerated, as quoted in the Lowell Sun.

The distinction that Alvarez identifies is that those in juvenile detention are able to attend school for 5 hours a day and receive mentoring. Another benefit of increasing the population sent to juvenile detention is that their offenses will not follow them after their sentence is over because juvenile records remain sealed, according to MassLive. Criminal records can prevent people from finding employment, being approved for loans or even finding housing.

“Young people have unique develop- mental needs, and our juvenile justice system plays a critical role in helping them get back on track. Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction will increase public safety and provide young people with the age appropriate rehabilitation and support services they need to lead successful adult lives and positively contribute to their communities,” said Spilka in a statement quoted in the Lowell Sun.

When Massachusetts first increased the juvenile court age, it resulted in a decrease in the number of youths under 14 in custody, from about 500 to a “handful,” according to National Swell.

Oftentimes, those youths incarcerated are young men of color. Massachusetts incarcerates black youth at 3.2 times and Latino youth at 1.7 times the rate of white youth, according to the Boston Herald. Moving the age would then allow young men of color to remain out of the criminal system and have access to resources for reform.

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