Bill Sturgeon: A start for state on criminal justice reform

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PITTSFIELD — First and foremost, a "Well Done" to the Massachusetts Legislature and Gov. Baker for their efforts to reform the Massachusetts criminal justice system. As a person who has spent most of his adult life working at various levels and positions within the system, serious reform has been needed for years.

This is the beginning of a much longer and complicated process that needs to be accomplished. The American criminal justice system is a patchwork of knee-jerk fixes to address immediate situations, most of the time without any current and relevant research to validate the fix.

These changes to the state's criminal justice system, in my opinion, mainly addressed the "end users." They are those individuals who have already become involved with the criminal justice system.

Employ new tools

I must criticize some of the "fixes" that the Legislature passed. Specifically, the continued use of chronological age as a determining justice factor for juvenile justice. With all of the modern scientific testing and evaluation methods, one would think that these 21st century tools would be employed during the juvenile adjudication process. Some of these tools are: I.Q., psychosocial and psychological testing, complete physical examination, and, if determined necessary, an MRI or CAT scan. Also, testing for traumatic brain injury. Looking back on my work with adjudicated juvenile and knowing what I know now about traumatic brain injury, I am convinced that some of the youthful offenders with whom I came into contact were suffering from traumatic brain injury.

If the Commonwealth really wants to have a juvenile justice system that will help kids, then it should use every tool available.

The most urgent and demanding need, I believe, is preventing children from becoming involved with the criminal justice system initially. A great deal has been written and discussed about the "pipeline from high school to jail." In reality the "pipeline" starts well before high school.

There have been many medical and psychological studies, as well as studies of the developing brain, that should be used when dealing with children who show a propensity to violent or criminal acts or who have become involved with the criminal justice system.

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Experience has shown me that society, and the juvenile justice system, appear to be hesitant to incorporate 21st century methods for dealing with children living in borderline, even dangerous environments, where abuse, violence and disrespect are a way of life. The foster system is overburdened and in some cases misused. Many children should be removed from their living environments because of lack of parenting skills, lack of parent involvement, abuse, neglect, because there are family member(s) who already are involved with the criminal justice system, problems in school, and familial addiction issues.

My involvement of working with and talking to youthful offenders has helped me identify the above as areas of concern. These are the living environments many of these youthful offenders came from. These youths, mostly in their teens, had been "adjudicated adults" and sentenced to an adult penitentiary because of the serious nature of their crimes. Many of them had served time in juvenile detention prior to coming to the penitentiary.

After spending numerous hours talking with them while they were incarcerated, it became clear to me that the crime that landed them in the penitentiary was the result of many missed opportunities to correct their behavior and prevent their incarceration. While they committed very serious and violent crimes, most of them were just teenage boys with all the physical, psychological and emotional challenges that go along with being a teenager.

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It is my assertion that in many of the cases that I am familiar with, the "system" let them down. If there had been some effective intervention early on, perhaps some of these young people might not have been in prison. However, I am not excusing the crimes they committed that resulted in their being incarcerated.

Obstacles remain

I believe that the obstacles to real criminal justice reform include the following:

Worrying about political correctness throughout the process.

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Making the assumption that involvement with the criminal justice system only involves minorities and the poor. The introduction of social media and the infusion of opiates and other drugs into society put every social class at risk. I have said for years that every child is at risk.

Addressing only the symptoms and coming up with quick fixes or magic bullets that do not work. Addressing the real problems takes courage, determination, open minds, and knowledge.

Not realizing that solving the problems, once defined, will be lengthy and costly.

Making excuses for criminal behavior because of past or current life's situation instead of helping those individuals to correct it is not a good approach.

Using the victim's rationale for justifying criminal activity.

Congratulations, Massachusetts, for a magnificent start in reforming the criminal justice system within the Commonwealth! Please continue your efforts with criminal justice reform especially, in the area of juvenile justice.

Bill Sturgeon has been in the field of criminal justice for over 40 years in various capacities. He has co-authored two books on managing youthful offenders incarcerated in adult prisons, and has authored numerous chapters and articles on other criminal justice related issues.


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