Leonardo Angiulo: Mass. Takes 17 Year Olds Off The Criminal Hook
Monday, September 23, 2013
A Small, But Significant Change
On Wednesday September 18, 2013 Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation that raised the age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction to 18. Until that date, if you were accused of a crime at the age of 17 you faced prosecution in adult court. While this may seem like a small change, the impact is significant.
According to press releases, the move was not made for budgetary or clerical reasons. Instead, it was done to acknowledge something other jurisdictions in the United States are addressing as well: that 17-year-olds have not reached adult levels of maturity or brain development. Throughout our criminal justice system the theory is that punishment and other consequences, including having a record, must follow when people make bad decisions. We punish because bad decision making must be corrected.
Giving Teens a Second Chance
By treating 17-year-olds as juveniles rather than adults for the purposes of criminal prosecution, the Commonwealth is effectively saying that there is the potential to correct behavior without lifetime consequences. And to be sure, there are lifetime consequences for even being charged with a crime in adult court. One example of a short-term consequence that could have lifetime effects is that until now 17-year-olds that had been charged with a crime served pretrial detention and sentences in adult prison.
When a person is charged in the juvenile court system there are certain other safeguards afforded to them. Unlike adult courts, no one can access the dockets except the parties involved. That means a person's name shouldn't show up in search engine results or newspapers if they are charged as a juvenile. Similarly, background checks by employers when a person is in their thirties won't reveal anything about that person's juvenile court record.
The classic example of a 17-year-old decision that can result in long term consequences is the senior year high school prank. Let's say a group of kids go to a rival high school and spray paint something on the walls. Well, chances are if the school is small enough it might take a day or two before the administration finds out who did it. Administration calls the police and before you know it three 17-year-olds are charged with vandalizing property. Or what if they got a little crazy and broke in and stole a trophy. B&E charges with a side of larceny over $250? You betcha. Those are felonies.
Now what if those kids were headed to prestigious Universities and thought their little prank would be hilarious. Turns out they now have to face prosecution during their last summer at home. And if things go really poorly, they may not be going away to school at all; until recently they would also be headed for adult jail.
Given the new statutory jurisdiction of juvenile court, 17-year-olds still face prosecution and accountability. The things they do wrong still subject them to court supervision, judges with the power to punish and the anxiety that comes from getting ready for trial. What it changes, however, is whether youthful indiscretion can tarnish a future that might not even have gotten started yet.