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The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior puts the most accurate and actionable neuroscience in the hands of judges, lawyers, policymakers and journalists—people who shape the standards and practices of our legal system and affect its impact on people’s lives. We work to make the legal system more effective and more just for all those affected by the law.
The editorial supporting “Raise the Age” legislation is consistent with years of research in criminology, developmental psychology, and brain science (“An unfinished piece of criminal justice reform business: Raising the age for juvenile offenders,” May 25). Raise the Age legislation is an important step to being “smart on crime” while avoiding the tired rhetoric of being “hard” or “soft” on crime. Young people who commit crimes would be held accountable but in ways that are developmentally aligned and don’t result in increasing risks of committing future crimes. Simply put, this evidence-based “smart” approach for young adult offenders reduces criminal recidivism, and that makes communities safer. It also reduces criminal justice and prison costs and offers young people an early offramp from criminal offending and an onramp toward a productive and safe life. This is a win for all of us.
Read Dr. Robert Kinscherff’s full Letter to the Editor here.
New research supports a new approach to dealing with ‘emerging adults.’
By The Editorial Board, May 25, 2023, 4:00 a.m.
Facts are indeed stubborn things. And the facts produced in study after study support the notion that throwing youthful offenders — those 18 to 21 — into an adult prison system is counterproductive.
It vastly increases the likelihood they’ll end up back in prison, harms their “physical and mental health, impedes their educational and career success, and often exposes them to abuse,” according to a recent national study by The Sentencing Project.
“And the use of confinement is plagued by severe racial and ethnic disparities,” the study also noted — a data point that holds up for Massachusetts as well.
Meanwhile, evolving research on the late adolescent brain (defined as ages 18 to 21) has told us a great deal that many involved in the administration of justice (not to mention parents) know intuitively — that the age group is prone to risk taking, peer pressure, and “more sensation-seeking behavior” than those over 21.
The research cries out for us as a society to look at how those late adolescents are treated within the state’s criminal justice system and whether it’s time to do things differently — to keep most of those “emerging adults” out of adult prisons.
In 2013, the state raised the age for juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18, thus keeping 17-year-olds in the juvenile system. An attempt in 2018 to increase the age of “criminal majority” to 19 as part of a sweeping criminal justice reform act caused such a brouhaha that it was dropped and left to a task force for further study.
This year state Senate President Karen Spilka told the Globe editorial board raising the age limit was on her priority list.
“It’s a matter Massachusetts could lead the way on and really make a difference in young lives,” she said.
“Some of the sheriffs are doing great programming” for youthful offenders, she added, “but they still end up with [adult criminal] records. This is an important thing in terms of our justice system.”
In fact, as if to show the seriousness of her intentions, this year the Senate president swapped out the Senate Reimagining Massachusetts Committee for a new Juvenile and Emerging Adult Justice Committee under the leadership of state Senator Brendan Crighton of Lynn.
State Representative Jim O’Day is leading the effort on the House side with a bill that would keep 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds in the juvenile system — raising the age gradually over the next five years. (That would not change the rules for those accused of murder, who can be tried as adults beginning at age 14.)
The Department of Youth Services currently can hold those sentenced as juveniles for certain serious crimes until age 21 and likely wouldn’t need much in the way of ramp-up time to accommodate a new cohort of youthful offenders, particularly if the age limit is raised gradually.
And by all accounts, DYS has done a good job of keeping those youthful offenders assigned to its care from coming back into the criminal justice system.
“Since raising the age in 2013 to include 17-year-olds, Massachusetts has seen a reduction in juvenile crime, a decrease in [the] number of cases arraigned and a decrease in new commitments to DYS (through 2022),” according to a report by Citizens for Juvenile Justice.
The results for those committed have also been impressive. The reconviction rate for those committed to DYS facilities was 26 percent, compared to 55 percent for late adolescents in the adult system. And yet the crimes for the two groups were remarkably similar, the study found — largely misdemeanors like simple assault, disorderly conduct, shoplifting, and alcohol-related offenses.
Sure, there are other ways of dealing with youthful offenders. Late last month Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden announced a pilot pretrial diversion program to begin this summer for 18- to 25-year-olds out of Dorchester District Court.
“The goal is always to keep kids out of the system and give them the opportunity to succeed,” Hayden said in introducing the program.
A “pre-arraignment” program aimed at first-time offenders or those with “limited” criminal histories could result in a clean slate for those who successfully complete the program. A parallel presentencing diversion program would also include the possibility of ultimate dismissal of a case.
And the program could be expanded to other courts in the county, Hayden indicated.
But a systemic approach, like the “Raise the Age” bill, is the best way to help level the playing field statewide and help address the racial disparities endemic in the current system where Black and Latino young adults are 3.2 and 1.7 times as likely to be imprisoned as their white counterparts.
Raising the age for juvenile defendants is one of those bits of unfinished business from a trailblazing piece of legislation now five years into its implementation. Today, given the state of scientific research on developing brains, the case is even stronger to keep young adults out of a prison system ill-equipped to provide the education and the rehabilitation they need. Today it’s time to try something different, something better.
Hayden announced a pilot program for young people 18-25 at a panel with nonprofit More Than Words.
By Ivy Scott, Globe Staff, April 27, 2023, 8:42 p.m.
Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden on Thursday announced a new diversion program for young adults ages 18 to 25 that his office plans to launch this summer in the Dorchester Division of Boston Municipal Court.
“The goal is always to keep kids out of the system and give them the opportunity to succeed,” Hayden said. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was going to work. I know it’ll work, and I believe in very short order we’ll go from Dorchester to Roxbury to Chelsea, and then all through Suffolk County.”
Hayden introduced the diversionprogram in a panel discussion at More Than Words,a nonprofit bookstore in Boston run by young adults. In addition to operating the bookstore, the nonprofit supports young adults in the foster care system, or who struggle with homelessness or entanglement in the criminal justice system.
Hayden was joined on the panel by Dr. Robert Kinscherff from Harvard’s Center for Law, Brain, & Behavior and Lael Chester from the Columbia University Justice Lab, as well as several young adults.
Chester shared highlights from a new report released by The Justice Lab Thursday on young adult justice entitled “Promising Practices: Pre-Arraignment Diversion for Emerging Adults.” The reportsummarizes 13 best practices for designing young adult diversion programs, includingallowing a young person to be diverted out of the system for multiple incidents, and tailoring services to “the unique needs and interests of each emerging adult.”
Duci Goncalves, head of the Committee for Public Counsel Services Youth Advocacy Division, stressed the importance of collaboration for a successful long-term approach.
“We all want the same things: we want our young adults to be successful, and we want our communities to be safe… [but] if we pour into our communities, that is public safety,” said Goncalves, who was also on the panel. “It’s so easy to get sucked into the system and once you’re in, there’s all these collateral consequences. It interferes with your ability to go to college, to get a job, housing, so many things that trickle down from even stepping foot into the courthouse.”
No one was more supportive of diversion than the young adults on the panel.
Mischael Morency, 24, who is enrolled in a mentoring program at Roca Boston, said he is excited about the expansion of a diversion program in the city.
“All that wasn’t attainable when I needed it, and it delayed my ability to do things like go to college,” said Morency, who is studying business management and finance at the University of Massachusetts Boston with dreams of working in real estate and serving as a mentor to other young men.
“Especially as Black men, we often learn that there’s only one way to express our emotions, and that’s anger,” Morency said. “So it’s awesome to see what will be possible for other guys who look like me in the future.”
The Suffolk County program will feature both pre-arraignment diversion for first-time offenders or young people with a “limited” criminal record, and pre-sentencing diversion for more serious offenses, Hayden said. Successful participants in the pre-arraignment program will never see the charge for which they were arrested appear on their record, while people who complete the pre-sentencing program will have their sentence reduced or, in some situations, their case dismissed entirely.
Hayden said his goal is to “tailor the services being provided and to tailor the timeframe” to the individual.
Some young adults might need nine months in the program while others hit their stride in three, he said.
Young people will also receive a physical wellness check “right off the bat,” he said, which can tell the office some of the individual’s most urgent needs, such as access to stable housing or substance use counseling.
Like the office’sJuvenile Alternative Resolution program, started in 2017, theprogram will focus on accountability, wellness, and transition out of the justice system.
“The focus will be on pre-arraignment, but we don’t want to limit someone who does get arraigned,” Hayden said, adding that youth outreach organizations such as More Than Words and nonprofit Roca “can make a real difference in someone’s life, and that shouldn’t end just because they get arraigned.”
Dr. Judith Edersheim spoke with Harvard Medicine, the magazine of Harvard Medical School, about bringing neuroscience to the courtroom as co-founder and co-director of the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain & Behavior.
“I have a dream job. Every day is more exciting than the last,” Judith Edersheim exclaims with palpable enthusiasm for her work as director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Law, Brain & Behavior. The center requires Edersheim to draw daily from her Harvard degrees in medicine and law as she strives to bring sound science into the courtroom.
The Center for Law, Brain and Behavior presents a variety of lectures and events each year, along with those in collaboration with the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School and the Boston Society of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. This Spring 2022, CLBB presented seven events on topics including addiction, juvenile justice and the courts, and elder fraud and abuse.