Massachusetts Pols Like German Justice Approach To Young Adults

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By Katie Lannan

BOSTON — The day after state lawmakers unveiled a compromise criminal justice bill in late March, the architects of that reform package joined Massachusetts court and corrections officials for a trip to Germany to study youth prisons there.

Last week, trip participants gathered to reflect on their experiences — including observing a trial and touring prisons — and what lessons Germany might have for criminal justice policy here.

“Two days after we returned, the really watershed criminal justice reform legislation got voted on by the full Legislature,” Vincent Schiraldi of the Columbia University Justice Lab said during a forum held Thursday at the Boston Bar Association offices. “The policy relevance crackled during the trip. It’s still a live conversation … We’re not done. We’re not done because of what the legislation did and what the policy discussion will be.”

The law Governor Charlie Baker signed on April 13 overhauls various elements of the state’s criminal justice system. Its many provisions include the repeal of some mandatory minimum sentences, bail reforms, and new diversion programs.

The law also created a task force to study the treatment of individuals ages 18 to 24 in the courts and correctional system, and evaluate “the advisability, feasibility and impact of changing the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to defendants younger than 21 years of age.”

The Senate had sought to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction one year to include 18-year-olds, a measure that was not included in the final version of the legislation. A 2013 law brought 17-year-olds into the juvenile court system, which had previously served youth age 16 and under.

Germany has included 18- to 20-year-olds in its youth justice system since 1953, said Lael Chester of the Columbia Justice Lab.

Chester said the population known as “emerging adults” — those between the ages of 18 to 25 — represent a disproportionately large share of criminal justice activity and have the highest recidivism rates of any age group.

Because their brains are still developing, emerging adults are well-suited to respond to interventions — such as family involvement, education and vocational training, and individualized treatment — that are embedded in the juvenile justice system but less robust in the adult system, she said.


An Argument for Separation

Department of Youth Services Commissioner Peter Forbes described the vocational training programs at the German facilities as one of “a couple things that I walked away from saying, ‘I want one of those.'”

“The idea is these guys get certified, and they go into the workforce with a legitimate voc certificate that will guarantee them a living wage,” Forbes said. “And that is like way beyond what we’re doing in the Department of Youth Services in Massachusetts. We have pockets of voc training that go on, but not something that’s really developed like that.”

Forbes said he wouldn’t personally advocate for 18- to 20-year-olds to be placed in either the juvenile or adult systems, but that the Germany trip “reinforced” for him the idea that separating that population out from others could have value.

“For me, it just makes the argument that that’s a different group that shouldn’t be in with the 50-year-olds. I don’t think they should be with the 15-year-olds,” he said. “I think it’s a bigtime policy decision that’s going to be made in the Legislature and the governor’s office, but I think the argument for me is that it would make some sense to separate that group.”

Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said she kept asking German officials whether they felt a need to separate younger teens from 21-year-olds, an issue that often comes up in Massachusetts when juvenile jurisdiction age hikes are discussed.

“They really looked at me very quizzically and couldn’t understand why I was even asking the question because they didn’t consider it an issue or a problem,” she said.

Carey said the justice system here has “very different things to grapple with” from those in Germany, where there is not much gun crime and opioids “don’t appear to be an issue.”

Among other differences Carey noted were that German corrections officers were trained “in sort of social work” and the young defendant in the trial the Massachusetts delegation observed was not represented by a lawyer.

Judges are the ones “driving the bus” in the German system, said state Senator Will Brownsberger (D-Belmont), the lead Senate negotiator on the criminal justice law.

Brownsberger said his “most striking takeaway” from the trip was the cultural focus on rehabilitation.

Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins said he found that Germany overall takes “more of a compassionate approach” to incarceration, focusing on how to help people improve their situation while incarcerated so they do not re-offend.

“In America I think we’re a little tougher, a little more penal, I do believe, than what we found in Europe, so that was refreshing,” Tompkins said. “The trick here now is to go back and talk to, in my world, in corrections, to say we just found some new things that we like that we think can work but in a quasi-militaristic environment like mine, that old adage, ‘Well, we’ve never done it that way,’ applies, so it’s a little hard to change.”