Warning of the dangers 17-year-olds face in adult corrections facilities, officials, academics and others urged lawmakers Wednesday to pass legislation that would put those teenagers in the juvenile justice system.
Ricky Wainaina told the Joint Committee on the Judiciary that when he was arrested as a 21-year-old on misdemeanor shoplifting from a supermarket, he was sent to lock-up and was physically assaulted by his cell mate the first night there. When his court date arrived in four weeks, he pled guilty.
What happened to one
“I was 21 and that was hard even for me,” said Wainaina, who also chronicled his time spent homeless in Lowell before joining the United Teen Equality Center. “I cannot imagine how a 17-year-old would deal with that.”
Lawmakers displayed their bipartisanship with Rep. Brad Hill (R-Ipswich) joining his Democratic colleagues Kay Khan, of Newton, and Paul Brodeur, of Melrose, to support the legislation, which cleared the committee last year, but did not become law.
“We ran out of time at the end of the legislative session,” Hill said. There are three similar bills (H 1432, H 3229 and S 26) that raise the upper limit of juvenile court jurisdiction.
Bill’s backers include the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association
The bill’s backers include the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association, which voiced support in a letter to the committee’s co-chairs Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea) and Sen. Katherine Clark (D-Melrose). The sheriffs argued that 17-year-olds are too young for adult facilities.
“Introducing them to harsh realities of the adult system, exposing them to a greater degree of risk for physical or sexual abuse, and immersing them in an environment filled with gang members and other hardened adult offenders hardly seems to be the best way to turn these youngsters around,” read the letter from Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti, president of the association.
Lael Chester, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said Massachusetts developed a juvenile justice system right after Cook County, Illinois, the first place to establish one. She said the Department of Youth Services is seen as a “leader” around the nation and provides more than five hours of education per day to youths in its custody. According to the sheriffs’ association, 38 states and the federal government agree that youth should remain under juvenile jurisdiction until their 18th birthday.
Frank DiCataldo, a psychology professor at Roger Williams University, said youths are apt to take risks that adults wouldn’t but are also more easily steered away from the path of crime.
“They are less oriented toward the future,” DiCataldo said.
“We certainly heard overwhelming testimony that people support this,” said Clark after the hearing. She said the committee would “hopefully come to a decision relatively quickly.”
“I feel the same way about this bill as I did last session, however I want to be deferential to our process and the other committee members,” said O’Flaherty.
Hill said one of the reasons he supports raising the age of juvenile offenders is the lack of parental involvement in suspects who are arrested as adults.
“In some cases they would make very bad decisions because there is no parental involvement,” Hill said.