Mass. bill would try 17-year-olds as juvenilesBy BOB SALSBERG , Associated Press
May. 22, 2013 5:05 PM ET
BOSTON (AP) — Seventeen-year-olds would no longer automatically enter the adult court system in Massachusetts under a bill that won unanimous approval Wednesday in the House of Representatives.
The change, if adopted by the Senate and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, would mean that 17-year-olds would be tried in juvenile court and serve sentences in juvenile detention facilities rather than in state prisons. It passed on a 152-0 vote.
Supporters of the measure said Massachusetts was one of only 11 states in which 17-year-olds are automatically prosecuted as adults. The bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Bradford Hill, of Ipswich, would change the threshold to 18, matching most other states.
"Young adults at that age don't always make the right decisions," Hill said, adding that a criminal record in adult court can have major consequences for a teenager going forward.
"It could hurt that child when it comes to college, when it comes to the military, when it comes to future jobs," he said.
Hill also noted that under current law, parents of 17-year-olds who are still in high school yet are considered adults in the eyes of the law are not informed by police when their children are arrested.
Backers noted that the measure would not alter the state's youthful offender law that requires teens charged with murder to be tried in adult court. Judges also would still have discretion to impose adult sentences on 17-year-olds accused of other very serious crimes.
"It does not mean that we are being soft on crime," said Rep. James O'Day, D-West Boylston, who also urged colleagues to support the bill.
The group Citizens for Juvenile Justice, which supports the bill, said it would also help Massachusetts comply with a federal law that seeks to reduce prison rapes by requiring that younger inmates be separated from adult prisoners.
Hill cited studies showing that youth committed to adult correction facilities are far more likely to be raped and are also far more likely to attempt suicide than those who are placed in juvenile detention facilities.
The Legislature is also expected in the current session to take up a separate bill that would eliminate mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for teens younger than 18 who are convicted of first-degree murder.
The bill, filed by Patrick, stems from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that found it was unconstitutional for states to have laws automatically sentencing juveniles to life without parole.