Law Change: 17-year-olds will now be tried as juveniles

On Wednesday, Governor Patrick signed the so-called “Juvenile Jurisdiction Law “, thus making it the new law of the land in Massachusetts.   Read the full press release here.  The law provides that 17-year-olds will be tried as juveniles and not as adults.     The new rule states that they will not receive an adult criminal record will get the benefit of other juvenile programs and services. I must admit that at first glance, I did not like the sound of this. Upon further reading, however, I think it is the right thing to do.

Here’s the thing: a 17-year-old knows the difference between right and wrong, and needs to be responsible for his or her actions. A 17-year-old is developmentally vastly different from a 12 or 13-year-old. The 17-year-old knows that there are consequences if he or she kills someone.  Or rapes someone.  Or assaults or hazes someone. So my initial reaction was that I did not like the change.  But then I did a little more reading and discovered tow things: (1) Currently in Massachusetts, 17-year-olds are treated as adults, regardless of the circumstances or severity of their offense; and (2)  that there are safeguards written into the law for violent crimes.

So right now, a 17 year old is an adult, and a criminal record will stay with him or her forever, even if the offense is relatively minor (no pun intended).  The new law provides that in cases of violent crime, although the case will still be heard by a juvenile court judge, the judge will have discretion to impose an adult sentence. Despite that, a 17-year-old will technically be under the jurisdiction of the Department of Youth Services and will not be sent to an adult prison or jail.  A 17-year-old is easy prey in an adult prison, so I agree with this idea of keeping them away from adult prison, as long as the system is not abused.

I am more of a “punishment” kind of guy, as opposed to a “rehabilitation” type.  Most of the time, I don’t think that people will change, especially if they don’t have any desire to.  However, a 17 year old has a lot better shot of mending his ways than someone further along in years.   A 17 year old, with a good scare in him from the police and judges, still has time to change, if he or she wants to.  If 17-year-olds are causing minor mischief, and doing other stupid things that 17-year-olds do, I don’t have a problem with them being tried as juveniles, or with them not having an adult criminal record that will follow them everywhere for the rest of their , and prevent them from getting jobs.  But if the 17-year-old engages in violent crime, I am in favor of them being tried as an adult.

When the issue came up for debate in congress, the child advocate for Massachusetts was asked to give testimony and opinion on the matter (Read her testimony here).  Not surprisingly, she was in favor of the new law.

But in cases of more serious crimes, I am in favor of adult punishments.  For example, if a 17-year-old was driving drunk after a party and hurt or killed someone in my family, I would be looking for the strongest punishment possible. This new law seems to allow for that to take place.  I say “seems” because we have not seen this in practice yet. It will take time to know whether leaving the decision in the discretion of the judge is going to work. In cases of violent crime, if we spend time feeling bad for these kids and trying to coddle them treat them as youths, we are going to be letting them get away with too much. Like I said, if it was my wife, son, or daughter, that was a victim of a violent crime by a 17-year-old, I would want the book thrown at them.

I’m not a criminal attorney so I’m looking at this less as a lawyer, and more as a husband and father. I’m trying to evaluate it with common sense, and not really focusing on how this will play into a criminal trial, criminal procedure, or evidentiary rulings.   Most of the on-line chatter seems to agree with me (See a Patch article here, which points out that we require individuals to be 18 to vote, serve on a jury, and enter into contracts.  In other words, we recognize that until age 18, these kids are still developing their abilities to think and make choices.

I think that if used properly,  I do agree with the law despite my initial misgivings.  But if its used to give a slap on the wrist to more violent crimes, I will be first in line to want it overturned.  Like many things, only time will tell.

Please take a minute and answer the poll below, and give me your opinion. I can be reached at: and .

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