Juvenile Justice Reform

Kids are kids — emerging research confirms that capacity for self-control doesn’t fully develop until well after the age of 18.  That insight, taken to heart, has far-reaching implications for the way we respond to youthful misbehavior.

The MacArthur Foundation has funded much of the recent research. The Foundation was troubled by the trend in the early ’90s towards harsher punishments for juveniles.

In 1996, the Foundation set a goal to reverse this course and to promote a rational, evidence-based juvenile justice system that holds young offenders accountable for their actions, promotes rehabilitation, enhances public safety, and lowers costs to taxpayers.

The Foundation has pursued a three-step strategy: initially funding basic research, then making some major state-wide implementation grants, and finally working to disseminate the lessons of the first two phases.  That dissemination effort yielded me an invitation to their “Models for Change” conference in Washington, D.C. in December, where I got a useful opportunity to learn and think about juvenile justice issues.

Those who were following the news in the mid-90s will remember the horrific Eddie O’Brien murder trial.   Some will also remember the long and emotional dispute over whether the massive fifteen-year-old should be tried as an adult and exposed to a mandatory sentence of life without parole.  He was ultimately so tried, convicted and sentenced.

In 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory juvenile life without parole is unconstitutional.  The court reiterated that:

developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds

To support this proposition, the court referenced research conducted by Laurence Steinberg, the Chair of the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Adolescent and Juvenile Justice.

Just weeks ago, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reached an even stronger conclusion — that life without parole (whether mandatory or imposed subject to discretion) is an unconstitutional penalty for a crime committed by a juvenile.   Once again, Steinberg’s work was cited as foundation for the statement that:

Simply put, because the brain of a juvenile is not fully developed, either structurally or functionally, by the age of eighteen, a judge cannot find with confidence that a particular offender, at that point in time, is irretrievably depraved.

The court concluded that:

the unconstitutionality of [juvenile life without parole] arises not from the imposition of a sentence of life in prison, but from the absolute denial of any possibility of parole. Given the unique characteristics of juvenile offenders, they should be afforded, in appropriate circumstances, the opportunity to be considered for parole suitability.

Of course, some early offenders are so dangerously flawed that they should spend the rest of their life behind bars, but I agree with the court’s conclusion that it is impossible to identify them based on their juvenile behavior alone — juvenile lifers should be considered for release by a parole board at some point after they are fully mature.   That doesn’t mean that they should or will be released.

In my new role as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, it will be a high priority for me to develop  new, constitutionally acceptable, rules for handling our most serious juvenile offenders that reflect the gravity of their offenses, the harms they have done, and also their limited juvenile judgment.

More broadly, it will be a long-term priority for me to systematically improve the laws applicable to juveniles in this state — to better protect the public, to better use scarce correctional resources and to better allow juveniles to recover from their early errors while imposing accountability.  We need to treat most kids as kids — keep them in their homes if at all possible, win back their hearts and minds, and give them the help they need to grow into citizenship.  We need to meet the mental health needs of kids in trouble and to break down the communication barriers between the many youth-serving agencies in the state.  We need to strengthen kids’ sense of fairness by holding them accountable, but punishment per se should never be our goal.

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Will Brownsberger
State Senator
2d Suffolk and Middlesex District