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Patrick signs bill, ends adult charges for 17-yr.-olds.

Byline: John J. Monahan

BOSTON -- The governor signed a bill Wednesday that will end the practice of charging 17-year-olds as adults, which state officials expect will help thousands of youth offenders avoid becoming career criminals.

Up until 2:50 p.m. Wednesday, when Gov. Deval L. Patrick put his signature on the bill, 17-year-olds arrested for criminal offenses in Massachusetts were automatically prosecuted as adults and sentenced to adult prisons, and their criminal records were made available to the public.

Judge Michael F. Edgerton, chief justice of the state's Juvenile Courts, said those charged now will instead be tried in juvenile court, with incarceration in juvenile detention centers, while their identities and criminal records will remain confidential and outside of public view.

Without a permanent criminal record, he said, "They will have a better chance when you are talking about employment and a better chance in life. And that is what this is about.''

The judge also said that under the youthful offender law, in cases of a serious violent crime, district attorneys can still seek adult sentences from the juvenile court that extend beyond age 18. But he said ordinarily juvenile sentences cannot extend beyond age 18.

Officials said about 3,400 17-year-olds went through the state's criminal courts last year.

State Rep. James J. O'Day, D-West Boylston, who co-sponsored the bill adopted with unanimous bipartisan support in the Legislature, said he supported the change, in part over frustration that 17-year-olds were being arrested and charged as adults with no requirement that their parents be notified.

He said it gives the state the ability to begin to provide drug treatment, psychological counseling and educational services to 17-year-olds without their being influenced by older criminals in prison.

"They will be with other youths and have good educational components to deal with whatever their issues are including, substance abuse, anger or a lack of education, so that we really address those issues and don't have recidivism,'' Mr. O'Day said.

"I really think this is an opportunity to stop that 17-year-old from coming back when they are 19, 22 or 23,'' Mr. O'Day said. He said a recent reduction in the number of juveniles in detention centers should allow the Department of Youth Services to absorb an influx of 17-year-olds.

Judge Edgerton said those age 17 currently in adult jails or with adult charges pending in the district courts now would still be treated as adults.

"It's a step forward because I think most of the psychological studies that have been done indicate the brain development and maturity levels of a 17-year-old is not that of an adult,'' Mr. Edgerton said.

"Therefore, quite frankly, they do not have the capacity to make legal decisions on their behalf even though they are in the court,'' he said.

The judge also said that because juvenile court judges and court personnel are trained to handle juveniles, "That is the proper setting for 17-year-olds.''

Gail Garinger, the child advocate for the commonwealth and a former judge in the juvenile courts, said the legislation acknowledges that the brain development and maturity at 17 are important in determining how those that age should be treated.

"The capacity for juveniles for rehabilitation exceeds that of adults,'' she said.

The legislation was also supported by the Massachusetts Bar Association, which indicated Wednesday that police and prosecutors were taking advantage of youthful offenders who were not afforded procedural safeguards given to other juveniles.

Until now, when a 17-year-old was arrested, police could interrogate the teen without a parent present and those 17-year-old arrestees could waive their Miranda rights and enter into plea bargains without parental advice or knowledge. The Bar Association said that a forced 17-year-old into making a decision that had a lifetime of consequences by producing a permanent adult record.

In a statement Wednesday, Bar Association officials said with the change, the juvenile crime laws will align with virtually every other area of law in Massachusetts that sets 18 as the age of adulthood when a person can vote, enter into legally binding contracts and be eligible for jury duty.
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Title Annotation:ReceivedContent
Author:Monahan, John J.
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Sep 19, 2013
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