SOMETIMES THE BEST THING that we can do for someone is give them a second chance. Or a third, or fourth. Whatever it takes to learn from a mistake and do better. But in the Massachusetts criminal justice system, the kinds of chances we offer our young people are very different based on something as incidental as a birthday. This has a very real impact on public safety.
This is something we have both experienced first hand.
One of us, Mary Gomez, was incarcerated three times before the age of 21. The other, Gregg Croteau, leads a nonprofit organization that focuses on reducing recidivism.
As a young woman growing up in Lawrence, I made mistakes and bad choices. I was incarcerated for the first time when I was 18 and then two more times quickly thereafter.
If I had committed my crime when I was 17, things could have been different. I would have entered the juvenile system. Because I entered the system when I was 18, I was treated as an adult. The difference is like night and day.
Now at 25, I’ve been working hard at getting my life in order. I’m working toward my high school equivalency diploma and participating in young adult programming at UTEC. I work in community organizing, participate in advocacy opportunities, and get up every day aiming to give back to my community and do better.
I’m convinced that I would have been able to do this sooner if I had entered the juvenile system back when I was 18, instead of the adult criminal system. And I know I’m not alone.
As CEO at UTEC, the Merrimack Valley nonprofit dedicated to reducing recidivism among young people, I have had the privilege of seeing what a clean slate truly means on a daily basis.
That’s why we were both proud to testify in support of the pending bill to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 18-21 years old, gradually over the next 5 years. The policy is informed by scientific evidence that confirms the continuing development of the brain and decision-making capabilities well into a person’s mid-twenties.
One of the most convincing aspects of this bill is its focus on ensuring that all young adults are guaranteed to receive an education if they are committed to the Department of Youth Services rather than at the discretion of which county jail or state prison you are sent to. They also have much more access to key mental and behavioral health services. This is not only important for personal growth. The ability to access education, with all the varied support services available, is instrumental in reducing the chances of recidivism — and increases public safety in communities across the state.
Unfortunately, all of these supports are currently not universally present for young people between the ages of 18 – 21. This point is critical given that the data show recidivism is highest among 18-25 year olds, and it’s why we testified before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary this week in support of Raise The Age legislation.
At UTEC, we are fortunate to see the personal change that happens on a daily basis. Programs and policies that build social emotional skills, offer mental health support, provide positive adult role models, and economic opportunities, are far more likely to result in increased public safety.
In Massachusetts, we’ve seen the benefits of raising the age to 17 — a 48 percent reduction in juvenile arrests and a 67 percent drop in the arrest rates of 18- to 20-year-olds, according to data from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. Now it’s time to go further.
The support is there. Young adults, advocates, elected officials, and our Commonwealth’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Andrea Campbell, are standing up together to say this policy change is essential. By raising the age to 21, we can meet young adults where they are — the first time — and help get them where they need to be.
We strongly believe that no one should be defined by the worst thing they have ever done and that our Commonwealth deserves the best path to ensure public safety for all. We are confident that this bill will make that possible on both fronts.
Raising the Age does not remove accountability.
Rather, it allows for learning and growth in a different setting so that the likelihood of further criminal activity is dramatically reduced as brain development advances. When we do this, we’ll be giving every young person the opportunity for redemption and to be part of the solution moving forward. And our communities will be that much safer.
Mary Gomez is a Lawrence native and participant in UTEC’s young adult programming. Gregg Croteau is the CEO of UTEC.