Under 18 or Under 21: Defining The 'Juvenile' In Juvenile Court

Apr 28, 2017

Massachusetts lawmakers are still working on this session's criminal justice reform package. One proposal -- among many -- would allow offenders to stay in the juvenile court system longer -- until they turn 21. But not all juvenile justice advocates support it.

'I Did All That, For What?

Billy Alicea was 15 years old the first time he stole a car. He said he was hanging out with a friend who had a "master key" -- a scraped-down Honda key that would work on any vehicle of that brand before 1995.

"It would go in and start the car," Alicea recalled. "So we just BOOM -- and then we were driving. Now we're just having the thrill of driving. We were young and stupid."

That thrill stuck with Alicea, and he kept stealing cars -- but at a cost. The 22-year-old is finishing up a sentence at the Hampden County jail. He said he's done a lot of reflecting the last three years.

"I know this now, that I did all that, for what?" Alicea said. "It was just not worth it."

Alicea now has a felony record. He worries it could haunt him as he tries to get a degree, a career or start his own business.

"I honestly don't think you're fully mature at 18,19, 20. I think it takes 21 and up to actually get there," Alicea said. "Twenty-one, it was really drilling in my head, I'm getting too old...Something needed to give. And then when you have an adult record, you're just like, 'Forget about it. It's already there. No one's going to hire me.'"

While juveniles can apply to have their records sealed three years after completing a sentence, felonies processed in adult court often remain on a person's record for life.

This could change under a proposal introduced this year in the Massachusetts legislature. Except for juveniles who commit the most violent offenses -- like murder -- the bill would gradually raise the age when individuals would have to go to adult court, from 18 to 21.

Twenty-one, it was really drilling in my head. I'm getting too old...Something needed to give. - Billy Alicea

Naoka Carey, executive director of the group Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said the adult prison system is failing these young adults.

"Too many of them are coming back, so we're seeing high recidivism rates with this group of young people, and they're not getting connected with the kinds of supports and services that they need to get on the right track," Carey said.

The juvenile system -- when it works -- offers educational programs and counseling focused on the needs of younger offenders. Incarcerating 18 to 20 year olds in adult prisons, on the other hand, only puts them in a position to re-offend, said Vinny Schiraldi, a research fellow at Harvard and the former director of juvenile corrections in Washington D.C.

“If you put these young people into jails, onto caseloads that were really designed to focus on the needs of older people on probation or older people in jail, and put them in contact with a more sophisticated group of folks who have committed crimes, then the likelihood is that they’ll gravitate towards continuing in their criminality -- not age out of it and become the kinds of citizens we want them to become," Schiraldi said.

Schiraldi said allowing older teens to go through juvenile court would decrease crime rates. He points out that since 2013, when Massachusetts last raised the age -- from 17 to 18, crimes by 17-year-olds dropped by 10 percent, according to FBI uniform crime reports.

Unintended Consequences

But some juvenile justice advocates think raising the age to 21 could create more problems than it solves -- by overwhelming the system.

Laurence Steinberg is a professor of adolescent development at Temple University.

Jovani Smith, 26, stands in a back room of Roca's Springfield headquarters. Smith lives in Springfield has had experience with both the juvenile and adult criminal justice system.
Credit Leah Willingham / NEPR

"You have to ask, not just whether that would be better for people that age," he said, "but how it would affect the teenagers and the younger adolescents who are in the juvenile system, and whether this would do something that would make that system a worse place for them."

Jovani Smith thinks it might. The 26-year-old Springfield native has been jailed in both the juvenile and adult systems, and he said the older population wouldn't mix well with younger groups.

"I don't know how the females are, but as for the males, that male ego...is real big in prison and certain people demand respect and they go about it by fighting or picking on the weak," Smith said.

Another argument against the proposal revolves around accountability. Although 23-year-old Josh Gonzalez, also of Springfield, has never experienced the juvenile system, he said a short stay in an adult facility when he was 19 helped get his life on track.

"Once you're in there you got to think about it, like, 'Damn. I'm not a little kid. I've got to wake up, basically.'" he said. "That's what happened to me. I was like, 'Damn, I'm f---ing up.' And then from there I got determined."

After Gonzalez got out of jail, he was able to get a full-time job with the help of Roca, a Massachusetts organization that supports at-risk young adults.

Josh Gonzalez, 23, sits in an office in Roca's Springfield location. Gonzalez was incarcerated for a few months when he was 19, but now has a full time job at Falvey Linen Supply in Springfield.
Credit Leah Willingham / NEPR

'Juveniles Are Apt To Make Mistakes'

Roca put us in touch with all of the young people interviewed for this story. The organization does support raising the adult court age to 21.

Massachusetts state Senator Cynthia Creem, who filed the bill, said she knows it may be a challenge convincing other lawmakers to get behind it. But Creem said her main argument is a simple one.

"I think it's making people realize that people make mistakes, and in particular juveniles are apt to make mistakes," Creem said. "They ought to be given an opportunity to do better with their lives."

Lawmakers in at least three other states -- Connecticut, Vermont and Illinois -- filed similar bills this year.

Creem's proposal will likely come before a statehouse committee in the next few months. She's hoping it gets included in broader criminal justice legislation -- a complicated proposal in a package full of complicated proposals.