By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
---- — BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law yesterday removing 17-year-old offenders from the adult court system in a move designed to help the courts put more youthful offenders on the track toward rehabilitation while also complying with a federal mandate to separate the younger inmates from the general prison population.
Dozens of lawmakers and advocates showed up at the Statehouse to watch Patrick sign the bill, heralded as a win for youth and their families to prevent teens from falling into a pattern of reoffending.
“Thousands of kids will grow into adults who won’t have that stigma,” said Sen. Karen Spilka, who filed the Senate bill to move 17-year-olds into the Juvenile Court.
Rep. Kay Khan was the sponsor of the bill in the House (H 1432) that won bipartisan support in both branches.
“Misplacing juveniles into the wrong judicial forum compromised the integrity of the system and putting them in the wrong place also compromised its effectiveness,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said.
Massachusetts joins 39 other states, the District of Columbia and the federal government in treating 17-year-olds as youthful offenders, though minors accused of violent crimes can still be prosecuted in the adult court.
Supporters argued that studies have shown teenagers have a better chance of being rehabilitated in the juvenile court system, and are at less risk of physical assault in prison.
Riqie Wainaina, 24, of Lowell, testified at a hearing on the bill this year, and showed up yesterday to see Patrick sign the bill with friends from the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell.
Wainaina was 21 when he was arrested in Tennessee for stealing food from a supermarket. On his first night in jail awaiting arraignment, Wainaina was assaulted by his cellmate.
“That was the most terrifying thing I’d ever gone through in my life. I can’t imagine how a 17-year-old would deal with it,” Wainaina said.
He moved from Tennessee to Massachusetts last year, and after a period of homelessness after his aunt’s death he joined UTEC. He now has a job at as a teller at a local credit union and is attending classes at Middlesex Community College.
The juvenile justice bill, one of the few major pieces of legislation to be signed into law this year, won support not just from Patrick and lawmakers, but the courts as well.
Judge Michael Edgerton, chief justice of the Juvenile Court, said that 17-year-olds still lack the maturity of adults and have a greater capacity for rehabilitation.
Rep. Brad Hill, an Ipswich Republican, said he hopes the bill not only strengthens the state’s justice system, but also helps relieve overcrowding in the prison system by moving thousands of 17-year-olds into the Department of Youth Services.
Patrick in January filed legislation in response to a Supreme Court ruling that would have not only moved 17-year-olds into the Juvenile Court, but also prohibited mandatory life sentences without parole for youthful offenders convicted of first degree murder. The Supreme Court decision issued last summer found that such mandatory sentences violate the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment restricting cruel and unusual punishment. The second piece of Patrick’s legislation has not been taken up by the Legislature.
The Massachusetts Bar Association also applauded the new law.
“The Massachusetts Bar Association commends the governor, the House of Representatives and the Senate for rectifying the inequity of treating 17-year-olds as adults, regardless of the crime or circumstances surrounding their arrests,” MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin Healy said in a statement. “This is more than just common sense; this is an important and much-needed change that ensures 17-year-olds are placed in a more effective rehabilitative setting.”