Reforming Criminal Justice Policy for Young Adults?

I spoke last week at a forum on reforming criminal justice policy for young adults.  The premise of the discussion was that people under 25 do not have fully developed brains and should be treated with more mercy than older adults.

I am all for more mercy in the criminal justice system.  I can’t let go of the fact that we are incarcerating 5 times as many people in Massachusetts as we were 40 years ago. Crime rates aren’t that different.  In fact, in many respects, they are down.  But, players at every stage of the system seem to be making harsher decisions — from police to prosecutors to judges to probation and parole officers.  Our laws are tougher too, but I think that is only a small part of the change — there is huge discretion at every stage in the system and I believe a cultural shift occurred in the 70s and 80s that oriented all the players in the system to harsher punishment and so drove incarceration rates up.  There has been a minor shift back over the past decade, reflecting recognition that incarceration rates are just too high, but we have a long way to go to get back to 1975 levels.

We need to do a better job lifting people up at every age, not just juveniles and young adults.  The recent advances in brain science indicate that parts of the brain associated with judgment and restraint continue to develop well into the 20s.  This is not news to auto rental agencies who generally don’t rent to people under 25.  But the brain science so far paints with too broad a brush.  There are lots of people in their teens who have better judgment than some people in their 60s and the brain science tells us little about why a handful of teens and adults commit horrendous crimes, but most teens and adults confine their lawbreaking to speeding violations.

Regardless of why people are impaired — whether due to simple immaturity, or to a history of trauma, or to addiction or mental illness — we need to recognize the needs and risk factors that impel people to crime and do a better job of reducing recidivism by addressing those needs and risk factors.

That is what I found most encouraging in last week’s discussion.  While it was conceived as a discussion about young adults, there was a general recognition that we need to “meet people where they are” when they come into the criminal justice system.  Behavioral science (as opposed to brain science) is validating new ways to respond to criminal offending.  Restorative justice circles bring offenders and victims together to resolve minor crimes out of court.  Mental health interventions get disoriented people into mental health care instead of jail.  Service agencies are connecting with prisoners before their release so they can come out directly to jobs and housing.

Punishment will always be part of the criminal justice system — if the state doesn’t punish people, people will seek vengeance on their own.  But punishment has come to be too large a part of the system.  As one participant noted last week, if one started over and asked how would we build a system that would help people turn away from lives of crime, it would look very different from the system we have.

Our current system is very pro-defendant from a procedural standpoint.  There are lots of safeguards that protect innocent people from conviction.  But once a person is convicted, the system operates in many ways to destroy their ability to ever function as a member of society.

The direction we need move in is clear.  The challenge is getting there — it’s not just about passing laws.  It’s about changing thought patterns in the justice system at all levels.



Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

17 replies on “Reforming Criminal Justice Policy for Young Adults?”

  1. It’s not about brains. It’s about economics. Kids don’t stay in school when they can’t get good jobs. They work the streets and they will continue to work the streets and be arrested until we put the cartels out of business by making drugs legal and controlled- giving them out at treatment centers that offer counseling, health education, regular education and links to employment.

  2. First to help is to get to one of the root causes. Bringing back dads into kids lives. So we must pass the Child Centered Family Law bill than work on reforming 209c, unmarried parents too. Kids who grow up with a dad in their life grow up to be less violent teens and less violent adults.

  3. ” But once a person is convicted, the system operates in many ways to destroy their ability to ever function as a member of society.” — your statement truly gets to the heart of the matter. Thank you for your thoughtful comments on this neglected issue.

    1. Leslie, if as Will and some others claim, and you seem to agree with, the brains of those under 25 are not yet fully developed, should we let those same persons:
      Drink alcohol?
      Smoke marijuana?
      Get an abortion?
      Run for elected office?
      Open a business?
      Be nurses?
      Be dental hygienists?
      Design important software?
      Drive MBTA buses and trains?
      Be bridge construction workers?
      Design cars?
      Fly airplanes?
      Cook food at McDonalds and Chipotles?

        1. This goes back to a letter former Federal judge Nancy Gertner wrote to the Boston Globe in which she said that the younger Boston Marathon bomber on trial may not be fully responsible (for the 4 murders and scores, hundreds of injuries) because his brain was not fully developed as he was not 25.

          These are outrageous excuses, Will. That is all they are.

          They show more sympathy to the criminal than to the hundreds of lives and families destroyed, including that of a little boy who was killed in the blast.
          Was that boy’s brain mature? No, and it never will be.

          As for people of age 25 or less not being fully mature, I think most of us would conceded that we were more mature at 30 than 25, and at 35 than 30, and so on.

          Where does it stop?

          If we give would-be criminals the idea that they will not be held responsible because they are not as mature as they will be at some later age, they will take full advantage of that.
          You see the miscreant “afluenza” kid (not to mention his dysfunctional mother) down in Texas who killed 4 people while driving drunk and the judge lets him off?
          This is what we get. This is where it all leads.
          Liberals try so hard to be “nice” and have a good heart that they often lose sight of the victims. I see this over and over.

  4. Remember that Rondald Reagan closed most of the mental health facilities – Jails are the replacement for that – so I think that is on answer. The other thing is Yes our society is very vengeful in many ways like with many public opinions citizens do not feel the impact such as the high cost of our criminal justice system – what does it cost to procecute a case ? the cost of incarceration ? (last known about $ 55 K a year). There seems to be a lack of ability to let small stuff go at the police level before even charges are made (some discression should be made but it has become a numbers game

    1. I wonder if you would have the opinion if a couple of juveniles broke into your home and did a bit of robbin’ and rape’in.

      God save us from naive, dangerous liberals like yourself.

  5. Will, I agree that the brains of people under the age of 25 may not be fully developed.

    So, Will, you must therefore be against people under the age of 25 voting, driving, and drinking alcohol.

    I am very happy to hear this.

    Or maybe, Will, you are all for giving people under 25 all the rights and responsibilities in the world, except for the case when they COMMIT A CRIME, and then you want to show them “mercy.”

    Tell us, Will, do you a similar sympathy for VICTIMS who are under the age of 25?

    No,you don’t. See, Will, this is what is wrong with liberals.
    Their brains are in the wrong place.
    Maybe they should be the ones in prison?

  6. Your sentiments are so well articulated and entirely sensible. It’s so sad that so many things have changed for the harsher since the 70’s. Hopefully, we will now reconsider our responses with the good of society as a whole in mind.

  7. Good! We are in a paradigm shift – from Escalating Punishment to Least Harm. Much better for society.

  8. Will,

    You know how important I think this topic is. Thank you once again for your thoughtful analysis and for your leadership on this issue at the State House.

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