Should 17-Year-Olds be Tried as Juveniles or Adults?


At what age should teenagers be tried as adults when charged with a crime?

In Massachusetts, it’s anyone 17-years-old or older, but two bills currently on Beacon Hill seek to change that. 

It’s a law that journalists at Patch and elsewhere are well aware of, since we’ve answered emails and questions from people asking why a 17-year-old arrestee’s name had been printed in a police log report.

Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 119, Section 52 defines only those 16 and younger as juveniles in the state’s court system. The makes the Bay State only one of 11 states that doesn’t classify 17-year-olds as juveniles.

Most states—38, to be exact—don’t treat alleged offenders as adults until they’ve reached 18-years-old. New York and North Carolina still try 16-year-olds as adults.

State representatives Brad Hill (R-Ipswich) and Kay Kahn (D-Newton) have each filed bills that would expand Massachusetts’ juvenile jurisdiction to 17, so only those who are 18 and older are tried and sentenced as adults. (The bills are House 3229 and House 1432, respectively.)

Two Massachusetts sheriffs spoke last week on Beacon Hill in support of increasing the juvenile age to 17. Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian and Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins testified before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

Koutoujian said in a press release, “For me, this is about trying to ensure we give youth caught up in the justice system the best opportunity possible to turn their lives around and become productive members of society. The statistics tell us the juvenile justice system is the best place to deal with adolescents. This is where the expertise is to intervene with more age-appropriate correctional, substance abuse and educational services.”

The press release from Koutoujian’s office cited surveys by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that show higher recidivism rates for those juveniles sent through the adult justice system.

If the changes pass, juveniles 14 and older charged with murder would still be automatically charged as adults, according to the press release, while the state’s current “youthful offender” statute could still be used to prosecute juveniles as adults for certain other offenses including those in which a victim is threatened with, or sustains, serious bodily harm.

Should 17-year-olds be tried and sentenced as adults in Massachusetts? Or is the law appropriate as-is? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

South End Patch