Supporters: Juvenile Justice Bill Is About 'True Second Chances'

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BOSTON (State House News Service— Demanding more age-appropriate interventions for young adults charged with crimes, youth activists and formerly incarcerated individuals urged lawmakers Thursday to advance bills that would overhaul how 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds are prosecuted.

The Judiciary Committee has less than two weeks to take action on what supporters call "Raise the Age" legislation (H 1710 / S 942), which would gradually expand juvenile jurisdiction to include young adults ages 18 to 20, meaning people ages 21 and older would be subject to the adult criminal justice system.

Bill sponsor Rep. Manny Cruz called the legislation a "no-brainer" during a rally outside the State House on Thursday afternoon, which featured chants of "free the youth and raise the age" and "rehabilitate, don't incarcerate." Growing up as an Afro-Latino man, Cruz reflected on how he lived "one mistake away from being behind bars at any given time in my life."

"I often hear from the critics of this legislation, 'What about the victims of violent crimes?' And to them I say, 'What about the victims of a system that is designed to incarcerate and police Black and brown people?'" Cruz said, drawing applause from attendees representing youth and criminal justice advocacy groups.

Youth offenders would still be prosecuted as adults for serious offenses, including murder, should the legislation be approved.

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Supporters said raising the age would improve public safety and align with adolescent developmental needs, particularly as young adults have the capability for rehabilitation and benefit from counseling and other intensive programs. Putting young adults in environments like jail and prison can harm their development, proponents argue, and boost their likelihood of committing future crimes.

Castro Rosario, who was previously incarcerated in the juvenile and adult justice systems, said lawmakers must believe in the potential of young people to change their lives.

"We need to invest in our young people, not arrest our young people," said Castro, a streetworker fellow at UTEC, which provides youth programs and services. "We need to create an environment for our young people that is conducive to their success in life. If we throw them away into the adult system while they're still trying to figure it out, we're just giving up on them."

Advocates say the legislation also tackles racial disparities, as young people of color are more likely to be incarcerated, which could ultimately impede them from being employed, owning a home and completing their education. The legislation has garnered support from Attorney General Andrea Campbell and the Boston Celtics.

"When I think about this legislation, it's about true second chances -- true second chances," Cruz said. "We need to be a commonwealth that understands that every single human being has dignity, has the ability to change, and deserves a true, honest second chance at life when they make a mistake."

An update to state law in 2013 allowed 17-year-olds to be included in the juvenile justice system, a change that advocates say dramatically reduced juvenile crime.

As a panel studied the prospect of further raising the age, Juvenile Court Chief Justice Amy Nechtem in 2019 warned against an expansion, saying it would not be a good match for the court and could impact work on child welfare cases. But Cruz and fellow Raise the Age supporters said the Department of Youth Services now has the clinical capacity to focus on serving juvenile offenders.

Kenneth Leslie, who was born and raised in Mattapan, said he was incarcerated when he was 17 years old.

"I had a lot of things stripped away from me," said Leslie, of the advocacy organization Voices of Liberation. "At age 17 my thought process was way different than the age of 25 and the age of 35 that I am now. They had me incarcerated with guys of all ages -- it started from 17, 25, 35, 40, so I honestly didn't have a chance. There was a point in time that I felt like I was a part of the system, which wasn't true."

A Supreme Judicial Court ruling earlier this year could influence the Judiciary Committee's decision on whether to report the bills out favorably by the April 30 deadline. In a 4-3 ruling, the court said that sentencing 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to serve a life term without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Kimberly Budd said the court determined "the brains of emerging adults are not fully developed and are more similar to those of juveniles than older adults, and that our contemporary standards of decency in the Commonwealth and elsewhere disfavor imposing the Commonwealth's harshest sentence on this cohort."

That case, Commonwealth v. Mattis, has changed the juvenile justice landscape, said Jay Blitzman, retired first justice of the Middlesex County Juvenile Court Division.

"The SJC went where no court in this country has gone before and actually applied a developmental lens to understanding late teens and emerging adults. And I think it is related in terms of policy implications," Blitzman, referring to the case and the Raise the Age legislation, told the News Service.

"Being smart on crime, not tough on crime, is a better way to protect public safety," he added.

Written by Alison Kuznitz/SHNS

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