Massachusetts justice system wrestles with how to define 'adult'

Reform in the Bay State includes a proposal to raise the juvenile age to 18 – and adult to 19. With the delay of 'adult' milestones, such as full-time employment and getting married, youth are slower to mature, supporters say.

Johnny Andrews /The Seattle Times/AP/File
Plans to build a new, $210 million juvenile-justice center and lockup in Seattle are met with opposition by protesters in January 2017. For the past 20 years, it’s been up to county prosecutors across the state to decide which 16- and 17-year-olds accused of committing certain violent crimes are 'auto declined' to adult, or superior, court and which ones are prosecuted in the juvenile system.

Massachusetts could be the first state to view 18-year-olds as juveniles in the criminal justice system.

A sweeping criminal justice reform package that would, among other things, raise the age of criminal majority to 19 – meaning that 18-year-olds would be treated as juveniles for most crimes – recently passed in the state Senate.

The House version of the bill left the age of criminal majority at 18 – indicating that not everyone in the state legislature is on board with raising the age. A committee is now tasked with reconciling the two bills before sending the end product to the governor.

If the age of criminal majority at 19 is signed into law, it would mark the highest age of juvenile jurisdiction in the United States. 

The proposal follows on the heels of widespread reform across the country to raise the age to 18. Ten years ago, 13 states – including Massachusetts – didn't consider 17-year-olds to be juveniles when they were arrested. Today, five states are holdouts, four of which are currently considering legislation to change that.

Prompted by a growing body of research on adolescent mental development, some studies suggest including teens in the juvenile system lowers recidivism rates. The push to raise the age also signifies a larger shift in the way society defines adulthood, observers say. Legal experts in Massachusetts and elsewhere see raising the age to 19 or higher – as has been suggested in Connecticut – as a natural next phase of the movement.

“The argument seems to be just about settled, when it comes to public safety and justice, that older adolescents – 17-year-olds, 16-year-olds – belong in the juvenile justice system,” says Joshua Rovner, juvenile justice advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. “So I think it's pretty clear that the next step in this is to continue expanding the juvenile justice system.” 

Reform in the juvenile justice system is happening across the board in the United States, from adjusted forms of sentencing – which Vermont is in the process of rolling out – to rethinking how those sentenced are incarcerated. This comes at a time when the number of young people being jailed is at its lowest level in two decades, thanks to a drop crime rates and reform efforts. 

But despite the momentum, changing the age of criminal majority may not be a simple shift. New philosophical questions and concerns arise when 18-year-olds – who are considered mature enough to vote and join the military – are included in the juvenile system. And on a practical level, experts say, shifting a large cohort of young adults from the adult to juvenile systems may not be possible for all states.

Shifting perceptions of adulthood

Accepting 18-year-olds in the juvenile system may hinge in part on society's shifting definitions of adulthood. 

For generations, being 18 meant the start of adulthood in more ways than just the ability to cast a vote or buy a lottery ticket, observers point out. In 1960, nearly half of all young people ages 18-24 were married, says Vincent Schiraldi, senior research scientist and adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Social Work in New York. Today, as college enrollment rates rise and more Americans delay marriage, it's rare to find a recent high school graduate who's married with a mortgage and a full-time job. 

For men in particular, marriage and steady, gainful employment – two steps that now typically come later in life – have proven to be important deterrents from crime.

Taking on serious adult roles helps to occupy young men's time, making them less likely to commit criminal acts, says Professor Schiraldi. “They haven’t really taken on those fully adult roles at 18 in the United States like they had in previous generations, but the law really hasn’t changed to reflect that.” 

Differences between the juvenile and adult justice systems vary from state to state, but across the board, juvenile systems tend to have a greater focus on rehabilitation. Naoka Carey, executive director for the Boston-based Citizens for Juvenile Justice, points to increased opportunities for education and interaction with family as key factors that differentiate the Massachusetts juvenile and adult systems. 

Such opportunities can mean the difference between moving forward toward a productive life and falling back into old criminal patterns, Carey and other advocates of raising the age say. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that teens transferred into the adult justice system were more likely to be re-arrested than those who remained in the juvenile system. 

Findings like these, along with a large body of research suggesting that adolescents are still developing mentally into their 20s, have contributed to successful reform efforts to include 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile system. In 2017, it's largely accepted by the public that, with the exception of those accused of extremely violent crimes, minors should be tried as juveniles, observers say. 

Arguments against the increase

Add 18-year-olds into the equation, however, and fresh arguments surface. If an 18-year-old is adult enough to vote or join the military, critics of the proposal posit, they should be adult enough to take full responsibility for their actions.

Carey counters that not all privileges of adulthood – such as drinking alcohol or renting a car – are available to 18-year-olds, and that “nothing about your 18th birthday gives you great insight or ability.” Many 18-year-olds are still in high school, she and other supporters of the bill say, and can still benefit from the academic opportunities and parental support offered by the juvenile system. 

“Treating people as juvenile until their 19th birthday will result in many 18-year-olds being treated as their classmates are,” writes Democratic state Sen. William Brownsberger, sponsor of the Massachusetts bill, in an email to the Monitor. 

Some experts also dispute the effectiveness of some recent laws raising the age to 18, a measure that may vary depending on individual states' policies and one's definition of success. A study of the Illinois justice system by researchers Charles Loeffler and Ben Grunwald found no significant statistical change in recidivism rates since the state changed its laws in 2010 to try 17-year-olds with misdemeanors in juvenile courts. (Illinois began including 17-year-olds charged with felonies in the juvenile system in 2014.)

“Some people look at that and say that’s clear evidence that it worked, there was no great increase in crime or reoffending among juveniles affected by the policy, so this is great,” says Dr. Loeffler, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. “Other people look at that and say, 'Well, I thought we were supposed to see a crime reduction,' ... and they're both sort of right.” 

More options could arise

Mr. Rovner of The Sentencing Project predicts that, if passed and signed into law, the Massachusetts reforms could serve as a model for the rest of the country.

“I think that, as happened with raising the age to 18, state legislatures and policymakers will look at the experience of leading states as Massachusetts to see how it plays out,” he says. 

Others are skeptical. Michele Deitch, an attorney specializing in juvenile justice policy and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, says that while she expects a few states might move in the direction of raising the age to 19 or higher, she would be surprised if such reforms become the new norm. Moving large swaths of 18-year-olds into the juvenile justice system is likely to raise costs, she adds. 

More likely, Ms. Deitch predicts, is the development of a intermediate justice system for 18- to 25-year-olds. For example, she says, states may keep offenders in this age range in the adult system, but introduce new sentencing laws for this age group and provide separate housing in more rehabilitation-oriented facilities. 

A slightly different approach to reform may be rethinking not just the age at which young people move into the adult system, but the adult system itself, suggests Loeffler. While considering raise-the-age laws, he says, advocates and policymakers might ask which valuable aspects of the juvenile system offenders miss out on once they turn 18 and whether it would be possible to improve upon the adult system in similar ways. 

“Another way of thinking about the problem is, ‘Well, what is it we’d like these individuals to receive that they don’t currently receive in terms of either treatment or other services?’ ” he says, "and figure out how to get them those services where they are.” 

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