Raise the Age
YAF joined other organizations and Governor Deval Patrick in advocating for the need to expand juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17 year olds. This important legislation was signed into law in September 2013. As a result, juveniles will now be granted an additional year to benefit from juvenile court judges, probation officers, youth corrections agency personnel, and more importantly, they will have access to policies and services customized for juvenile offenders.
Governor Patrick was quoted as saying he was “proud to sign legislation that creates a better balance of holding our most violent offenders accountable, while giving our young people the opportunity for rehabilitation and reform they deserve.” Further, he views the legislation as one of the many steps in Massachusetts’ hard work “to make the investments in education and job training to close achievement gaps and give every child the opportunity to succeed.” Despite these efforts, he said, “some children still fall through the cracks” and this legislation establishes that “we must not give up on them.”
YAF, along with pro bono attorneys and other legal and community-based organizations, was an integral part in promoting the Raise the Age campaign, which put Massachusetts in line with the majority of other state government’s that previously set 18 as the age of adult criminal jurisdiction.
Juvenile Life Without Parole
Two years ago, YAF worked to put an end to the policy that permits mandatory life sentences, without parole, for Massachusetts children as young as 14, urging that that no child should be sentenced to die in jail. At the time, Massachusetts had more children sentenced to die in prison than most other states in the country. 40% of those incarcerated were first-time offenders with no prior record. YAF, along with many others, argued juvenile’s sentences should take their youth into account.
Everyone agrees that teenagers must be held responsible for their crimes. However, these rulings need to consider this demographics’ unique capacity for change, growth, and rehabilitation. In December of 2013, the State’s highest court agreed with YAF’s initiative. Since then, West Virginia and Hawaii have followed their example.
Currently, our system still has 63 inmates serving juvenile life without parole sentences. However, in May of 2014, two Massachusetts men, sentenced to life when they were 17, were granted the first opportunity for freedom. There is no verdict yet on whether the courts will grant their request, but it is clear that the initiative is finally taking action.
The school-to-prison pipeline is the disturbing national trend of criminalizing rather than educating our nation’s children. Every year thousands of young people in Massachusetts become entangled in this dead-end process due to zero tolerance policies and practices. And many never get out. It is tragic that a child might be suspended or expelled for a youthful mistake. But that’s often how it begins—a minor school infraction starts a downward spiral that ends in court, or prison, and can last well into adulthood. This is an ever-increasing tendency, especially for the most-at risk students.
The primary fault in our system is the inadequate number of resources in public schools. Our schools are riddled with overcrowded classrooms, lack of qualification and insufficient funding. Due to these failures, many students become disengaged, eventually dropping out from education entirely. Because of this trend, schools have established a zero-tolerance mentality, meaning they impose strict and severe punishments without contemplation of circumstance. These unnecessarily harsh reprimands funnel more kids into the pipeline and the juvenile system.
Further, due to the lack of resources, in order to preserve control and obedience, many of these schools place increased importance on police patrol rather than administration supervision. With direct police involvement, the number of school-based arrests has risen dramatically making the school to prison pipeline a reality for at-risk youth at an alarming rate.
YAF works tirelessly through various projects and partnerships to stop children from entering this path, decrease the risk of chronic court involvement, and increase the chance that young people grow into responsible and productive adults through uninhibited education.