The unforseen directions of raising juvenile court ages in Massachusetts

The Suffolk County Superior Court. (BU News Service File Photo)

By An Peng 
BU News Service

BOSTON – Fernando Williams entered the Department of Youth Services at age 14. Although he was there because of trouble he caused, he still received privileges, like scheduling doctor appointments and getting school credits. He felt at one point that the juvenile system was helping.

He transferred to the adult system when he turned 18, going to the House of Correction, which was a dramatic change from DYS. This time, he said he was forced to do many negative things to survive, including hurting somebody, joining a gang, and participating in sexual activities.

“You’re going from a place that really makes better of yourself to a place that’s like going to turn you into animal. Nobody there is showing me anything positive,” said Mr. Williams, now 25.

Having experienced both the juvenile and adult system, Mr. Williams was a witness for lawmakers deciding whether to raise the age for entry into the adult criminal justice system.

“I just feel like they shouldn’t let no kids go to the House of Correction. They should just let them stay in DYS and get the help that they need,” Mr. Williams told lawmakers at the third hearing of Emerging Adults Criminal Justice Task Force.

Before 2013, 17-year-olds were considered adults, but under juvenile court jurisdiction. Back then, there were a lot of conversations between system leaders and service providers. Reform advocates said having 17-year-olds in the adult system would result in higher rates of recidivism, and Massachusetts eventually joined a national wave of having all 17-year-olds automatically tried as juveniles.

“What we are seeing actually has a pretty positive outcome. The recidivism rate dropped by half. The recidivism rate in the juvenile system … is between 20 and 30 percent, which is much lower than the 76 percent,” said Sana Fadel, deputy director of Boston-based Citizens for Juvenile Justice.

The current upper age limit of juvenile court is 18, meaning that people can be in juvenile court and DYS until they turn 18, when they transition to adult court and adult corrections facilities. Now, advocates are asking lawmakers to raise the age again, this time to 21.

“We know what works for 17-year-olds and that’s when we’re like, well, what’s the difference between 17- and 18-year-olds or 19-year-olds or 20-year-olds? They’re still teenagers. Many of them are still in school. Their behaviors are very similar to the other younger adolescents or teenagers,” Ms. Fadel said.

According to CFJJ, people ages 18 to 24 account for 10 percent of the U.S. population but 30 percent of arrests. And if they get incarcerated, three out of four come back to court for a totally new case, making the highest recidivism rate of any other age group in Massachusetts.

Since 2018, state Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, and Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, have been chairs of the Task Force on Emerging Adults in the criminal justice system, a panel created by last year’s major criminal justice reform law. Emerging adulthood, according to American Psychological Association, is a developmental stage of young people which is neither adolescence nor young adulthood, with a specific focus on 18 to 25.

“This task force has two major parts of our charge,” said Ms. Creem in an email interview. “First, the task force will consider the advisability of raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include defendants younger than the 21st birthday. Second, we will also make recommendations about how to adapt the adult criminal justice system to be more age-appropriate for 18-24 year olds.”

Social services groups are lined up to support raising the juvenile court age. Malcolm Joseph, the provider contract manager of Roxbury Youthworks Inc., said during the task force public hearing that all young people deserve an opportunity to succeed and to achieve.

“The Justice Policy Institute research published in 2016 notes that generations of youth will continue to face challenges transitioning into adulthood because of their exposure to the adult justice system,” Mr. Joseph said. “This is why raising the age is such an urgent issue, not only for youth and their families or for anyone concerned about fairness, enhancing public safety and improving the local economy in states with lower ages of juvenile court jurisdiction.”

The transition from youth to adult is also emphasized in CFJJ’s report on developmental science. According to the report, the young adult brain is highly influenced by the environment. The exposure to negative environment in the criminal justice system and overly punitive approaches will likely increase problematic behaviors of young adults and again increase the recidivism rates.

Roca, an organization that has served more than 854 high-risk young men from 21 communities in Massachusetts, is also in favor of raising the age.

“Young adults recidivate more than any other group, and the system in its current form simply fails to hold them accountable in an effective way,” Yotam Zeira, Roca’s director of strategy and external affairs, said in a statement. “Massachusetts spends so much money and effort on locking up young people in adult jails, just to get in return poor and unsafe outcomes. Reducing recidivism among young people is far more likely through DYS and the juvenile court.”

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson disagreed. He said the root of the problem is not minimizing the consequences for bad choices.

“It’s a societal problem and we can’t legislate family values, but we also can’t minimize the fact that some of these juveniles are committing some very serious crimes,” Sheriff Hodgson said.

He also said that people need to face serious consequences for serious infractions. A juvenile setting is different than being confined in a prison setting where most people get the cold, hard reality that their freedom is really confined as well. Once those who are convicted realize this fact, they will be more likely to change their behaviors as opposed to a more relaxed sort of environment.

Massachusetts is not the only state looking at juvenile jurisdiction age issues. In 2018, Vermont became the first state in the union to set its juvenile justice age above 18. Illinois and Connecticut are considering similar legislation to raise the age to 21, although Illinois only includes misdemeanor offenses.

Their secretaries of public safety at the time examined the plummeting arrest rate and recidivism rate and came to the proposal to adjust the age group. Right now, Massachusetts’ advocates are also convinced by the same argument, and they believe what they know works for that young population already exists in the juvenile system.

“The foundational theory of the juvenile system is that young people mess up because they are young people,” Ms. Fadel said. “They will take risks, they will not make good decisions, and one way to fix it is waiting for them to mature. And you know they are going to mature if they mature in an appropriate environment.”

This article was previously published on

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.