Our justice system fails young adults and their communities; so let’s fix it

Rep. Evandro CarvalhoRep. Evandro CarvalhoAs a prosecutor, my job was to keep communities safe and crime-free. I worked with smart, committed people, but we struggled with a system rife with inadequacies. While crime is generally down in Massachusetts and nationally, our justice system has never adequately addressed issues facing young adults in their late teens and early twenties. We all pay a heavy price for this failure. Young adults commit a disproportionate number of crimes and have the highest recidivism rate of any age group. Arrest and prosecution have not had the desired effect with this age cohort, and there is considerable evidence that these strategies have been detrimental.

Many of the stakeholders recognize that we need to take action. The juvenile justice system has lower recidivism rates than the adult system, because it is tailored work for adolescents. We know that adolescents have an enormous potential for rehabilitation. So rather than have them sit in a cell all day – the standard in adult facilities – the juvenile system makes people participate in education, counseling, and other programming that capitalizes on their potential. This system does not exclude the offenders from punishment. Rather, the punishment levied has a purpose. This is something that can rarely be said about the adult system.

People do not become different human beings the day they turn 18. Maturation is a process. A 20-year-old is neurologically more similar to a teen than an older adult. At this age, their brains are still developing and evolving. That means the potential is still strong to direct them toward a way of life that is productive and law-abiding. Unfortunately, the potential is also there to direct the person toward repeat offending. We know that young adults are keenly influenced by their environments. Adult jails and prisons are not the right places to learn about responsible behavior. They are schools for dysfunction.

Several bills, including H3037 which I have sponsored, would move the majority of people under 21 to the juvenile justice system, while reserving adult prosecution for the most serious crimes. Massachusetts would be the first state in the nation to set the upper age of juvenile jurisdiction at 20. It is a bold reform.

It is also common sense. We have a juvenile justice system that objectively works much better than our adult system. We have a group of people who are not being rehabilitated by the adult system and share fundamental similarities to the youth who are already succeeding in the juvenile justice system. The real question is: What took us so long to consider this?

The benefits of raising the age extend beyond public safety. This is a reform that supports community prosperity. Where the juvenile system provides some measure of confidentiality, an adult record is an opportunity killer. It becomes harder for a young person to get an education, a job, or a place to live. They may be denied the opportunity to serve in the military or become a foster parent. Because we are more active in policing and prosecuting some communities, including those I represent, the system’s counterproductive handling of young adults places an economic burden on already struggling neighborhoods.

Residents of Dorchester and Roxbury made up 47 percent of those committed to the Nashua Street Jail and Suffolk County House of Corrections in 2013. The state spent nearly $34.5 million locking up my neighbors in these places – money that the state didn’t have to devote to our community’s schools, civic life, or health. That tragic misdirection of resources is multiplied by what happens in those places: Young men and women are branded in a way that will make it harder for them to learn and earn, often for a lifetime.

The way that the justice system treats young people inflicts pain on many of our communities. We can change this by simply looking at and responding to the facts. The adult system makes young adults more likely to reoffend and less likely to achieve economic independence and prosperity. The juvenile system gets much higher marks in both areas. Instead of doing what we have always done, we must do what works.

Evandro Carvalho is the state representative for the Fifth Suffolk District, which includes parts of Dorchester and Roxbury.