New Massachusetts law places 17-year-olds in juvenile courts

The Berkshire Juvenile Court on North Street in Pittsfield. Seventeen-year-olds who run afoul of the law will now have their cases heard in juvenile court, per the new ‘Raise the Age’ law signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, which allows them to enter the juvenile -- instead of adult -- justice system.

Nearly every day, 17-year-olds from around Massachusetts end up in District Court after being arrested for disorderly conduct, trespassing, theft, illegal possession of alcohol or other minor crimes. But as of Sept. 18, when Gov. Deval Patrick signed the so-called "Raise the Age" bill into law, 17-year-olds who commit crimes no longer go to adult court. Their cases will be heard in juvenile court.

But as of Sept. 18, when Gov. Deval Patrick signed the so-called "Raise the Age" bill into law, 17-year-olds who commit crimes no longer go to adult court. Their cases will be heard in juvenile court.

The new law, sponsored by Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, raises the age of juvenile-court jurisdiction in Massachusetts from 16 to 17.

Instead of going to county facilities like the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction, a 17-year-old convicted of a felony, misdemeanor or municipal ordinance violation (like public drinking), is considered a "juvenile delinquent," with an age range of 7 to 17. The teen can be sent to a Department of Youth Services facility until the age of 18.

The goal of the new law is to provide public safety while giving teenagers age-appropriate rehabilitation and support.

Thirty-nine other states and the federal government have set the age of adult criminal jurisdiction at age 18. This goes hand in hand with the minimum age for voting and jury duty.

"I've always felt having 17 as the age at which a person is considered an adult by the court system as completely arbitrary," said Pittsfield attorney Robert M. Fuster Sr., who has defended both juveniles and adults in court.

He believes the new law is a good one for a variety of reasons, especially because "17-year-olds are still youngsters. ... Their state of maturity isn't that of an adult."

Fuster feels the new law will help many of these teens steer clear of further criminal behavior.

"The juvenile court system has many more diversionary programs than the adult court system," he said

For Lowell attorney Kerry Ahern, a former prosecutor turned juvenile defense attorney, the change in the law is "a great move and way overdue."

Ahern, like many others, say the new law is a no-brainer.

"There has been extensive scientific research in recent years that shows that adolescents' brains are not fully formed until early adulthood. They process information differently, are much more impulsive and are not always able to fully appreciate the consequences of their actions," she said.

They are also at a greater risk for suicide and sexual abuse while in confinement, and they face serious barriers to future employment, education and housing due to their adult criminal records.

The juvenile court is centered around rehabilitation and it just makes sense to allow 17-year-old high-school students to have the benefit of the juvenile system as opposed to exposing them to the often harsh consequences associated with adult convictions, Ahern said.

But some teens have already been exposed to those harsh consequences. In Berkshire County 79 teenagers were processed in adult court in 2012, according to Massachusetts Trial Court statistics.

Dangerous teens who are accused of crimes, such as murder, certain firearms offenses and other "serious bodily harm" charges, or have had previous DYS commitments, can still be tried in adult court as "youthful offenders," which covers children from 14 to 17 years old, according to the 2013 DYS website.

A youthful offender can receive a commitment to DYS until the age of 21, a combination of DYS and adult sentence, or just an adult sentence.

According to attorney Joshua M. Dohan, the director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 cases statewide that will be transferred from attorneys in adult courts to those who work in the juvenile system.

"Our lawyers are ready for this," he said, "and the court is ready for this too."

CPCS is an agency that represents defendants who cannot afford to hire a private lawyer.

Jennifer Donahue, a spokesperson for the Supreme Judicial Court, said the "effective date of the legislation was immediate, but not retroactive," meaning any cases involving 17-year-olds in which the alleged offense occurred on or after Sept. 18, the defendant would be considered a juvenile. For those defendants whose alleged crimes were committed before that date, their cases will stay in adult court.

"The bill did not address the cases that are pending in the district and superior courts for 17-year-olds," Ahern said. "But lawyers are arguing that it should be liberally construed as the intent is to ensure that children not be treated as criminals. So, long story short, it is open to interpretation."

"The transition has so far proceeded smoothly," Donahue said in an e-mail. "We will watch with care to determine if the age change will require any new resources in the Juvenile Court or in Juvenile Probation."

The move will relieve pressure from the adult court system as well, according to Fuster.

Victims advocate Laurie Myers, of the Chelmsford-based Community Voices, said, "The issue here is around monitoring inmates, whether they are housed in adult or juvenile facilities. Will this new law put young children in juvenile facilities at risk of being victimized by a 17-year-old, adult-sized juvenile? I hope not."

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With this new law, Myers said, "I hope the state adopts strict monitoring policies for all juvenile facilities."

Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, who runs the Middlesex jails, said in a statement, "The most appropriate setting to deal with the vast majority of 17-year-olds is in the juvenile-justice system. That is where the expertise is to intervene with age-appropriate correctional, substance abuse and educational services."

The Massachusetts Sheriffs Association was a key supporter of the bill.

"For me, this is about ensuring we give youth caught up in the justice system the best opportunity possible to turn their lives around and become productive, taxpaying members of society," Koutoujian added.

Defense attorney Christopher Spring, a former prosecutor, said, "Prosecuting 17-year-olds in juvenile court is absolutely the right policy decision. Sending a vulnerable 17-year-old kid to jail -- even a county facility -- is likely going to scar him for life. If the system can get him the services he needs from the juvenile system, it will benefit the kid and hopefully convince him to stop committing crimes."

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Treated as adults

Last year, there were 3,046 17-year-olds processed in adult court, the majority in district courts, but a few landed in superior court for more serious crimes.

County Cases

Worcester 466

Middlesex 420

Bristol 407

Suffolk 363

Essex 327

Hamden 314

Plymouth 198

Norfolk 195

Barnstable 161

Franklin/Hampshire 116

Berkshire 79

Source: Massachusetts Trial Court