Bill would keep 17-year-olds out of adult jails

The Patriot Ledger reports that a bill to keep 17-year-old offenders out of adult courtrooms and jails in Massachusetts aims to reduce sexual assault in prisons and bring the state into compliance with federal law.

The bill, which could come to a vote in the State House, would move 17-year-olds into juvenile jurisdiction and abolish the practice of charging them as adults in nearly all cases.

State Rep. James Cantwell, D-Marshfield, is optimistic about its chances for passage.

“This is a bill that is a long time coming,” said Cantwell, a former county prosecutor. “Kids at 17 do not have the requisite brain development. There are definitely impulsive actions that need to be punished, but the juvenile justice system has a lot more resources. … Sending a 17-year-old to an adult jail is a recipe for disaster.”

The Patriot Ledger reports that Norfolk County Sheriff Michael G. Bellotti said 17-year-olds make up a small portion of the total inmate population at the county jail in Dedham, and he agreed with other sheriffs in the state that treating them as juveniles makes more sense.

“It’s more appropriate for a youthful offender,” Bellotti said. “We’re really geared for adult offenders who have been through the system.”

Bellotti said 17-year-old inmates in the county jail usually number between one and five among a total adult inmate population of 600 to 700.

Passage of the bill would also bring Massachusetts into compliance with a federal law passed in 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which mandates segregated housing for inmates under 18 years old.

The deadline to comply with this portion of the federal law is August, said Naoka Carey, a senior policy expert at Citizens for Juvenile Justice in Boston.

Carey said that bringing 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system would accomplish three goals.

“The first is public safety. These kids will reoffend less,” she said, pointing out that juvenile detention centers offer mandatory education and substance abuse prevention programs.

Second, Carey said, 17-year-old inmates mixed in with adults in a prison are vulnerable to sexual assault.

And third, in the current system, in which 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults in Massachusetts, there is no requirement to involve parents.

“This really helps families. Right now, parents of 17-year-olds aren’t notified if their kids are arrested or in court,” added Carey.

With passage of the bill, parents of 17-year-old offenders would have a right to be notified.

The bill would not change the current law that allows anyone 14 or older to be charged as an adult in murder cases.

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