New bill would treat 17-year-olds as juveniles

It is legal in Massachusetts for a 17-year-old charged with any crime to be tried and incarcerated as an adult.

But if some Bay State lawmakers and juvenile justice advocacy groups have their way, the law would be changed to treat 17-year-olds as juveniles.

And that proposal got quite a boost on Wednesday as the Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill that would treat 17-year-old accused of most crimes as juveniles.

Supporters of the measure said Massachusetts was one of only 11 states in which 17-year-olds accused of crimes as juveniles, would automatically go to juvenile court instead of adult court.

If the bill ends up clearing all other hurdles, and winning approval, only those who are 18 and older would be allowed to be housed in adult population facilities, and 17-year-olds would be remanded to juvenile facilities.

Bristol County Massachusetts Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who is a Republican, does not approve of the proposed change.

"The issue that's developed, I think, has really developed from the interest of some legislators, but frankly, as far as I'm concerned, if you are sentenced to come to our prison by a judge, that wasn't easy to do," Hodgson said.

Hodgson said if you end up in his jail, you had to do something pretty serious to get there.

The sheriff also added that because exceptions to even the existing rules are often granted due the particularly heinous nature of certain crimes, he sees no reason to change the current law.

"It was either a very serious crime, or you have a repetitive record of criminal behavior, so, in either case, (having inmates here) at 17-years-old, it's worked well. We haven't had any issues around it. So as far as I'm concerned, if a judge thinks you should be here, you belong here."

But not everyone agrees.

An active advocacy group called "Citizens for Juvenile Justice" is pushing for just the opposite.

The group wants to see 17-year-old offenders in Massachusetts in juvenile facilities and not at places like the Bristol County Jail in North Dartmouth, behind barbed wire, alongside hundreds of adult offenders.

A statement on the Citizens for Juvenile Justice website reads: "Massachusetts risks non-compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act." The Prison Rape Elimination act requires states to separate younger prisoners from adults.

The statement goes on to say, "Kids in adult jails and prisons are at high risk of sexual assault. Prisoners under 18 are more than eight times more likely to be raped than adult inmates."

But Hodgson said he's never heard of any such problems related to 17-year-old inmates in his facility.

"There's no reason to change the rule. There's been no overwhelming evidence or any trend that's driven this (potential law change), that I'm aware of, and have not heard from any other sheriff's that there was any type of problem. Certainly, in this case, it's worked well, and I don't think there's any overwhelming reason to change it," he said.

The Bristol County Sheriff says most other sheriff's across the Commonwealth agree with him, saying that the system should stay 'as is.'

But the Citizens for Juvenile Justice organization is so passionate about changing the law that it's started an online petition.