Debate continues over fairness in new juvenile law

By Frankie Barbato, State House correspondent, The MetroWest Daily News


BOSTON —For Boston defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro, a new state law that pushes up the age a defendant can be tried as an adult from 17 to 18, does not go far enough.

“(The law) does not change the fact that…children ages 14 and above who are charged with first or second-degree murder are still prosecuted as adults,” he said. Shapiro, who defended John Odgren, a 15-year-old Lincoln-Sudbury High School student convicted in 2010 of first-degree murder, said that the law does not change the treatment of juveniles like Odgren or address cases involving juveniles tried prior to the bill’s signing this week.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me to have the same people in the same situation be treated so differently,” Shapiro said. On Wednesday, Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation that puts Massachusetts in line with 39 other states and the District of Columbia to try 17-year-olds in juvenile court.

In January, Patrick filed legislation to make changes that his administration said would make the juvenile justice system fairer. One part of that legislation called for raising the age for trying people as adults to 18. A second element called for eliminating mandatory life in prison without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.

In a June 2012 decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. The change in the state law does not affect more serious cases such as murder and sexual assault, allowing prosecutors to bring a juvenile’s case to adult court.

The legislation signed Wednesday does not outlaw mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. State Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, a former prosecutor who co-sponsored the bill, said the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee will on a bill outlawing mandatory life sentences for juveniles sometime in the present legislative session.

Only 11 other states prohibit mandatory life sentencing without parole for juveniles. Linsky said that pushing the age of adulthood to 18 for many defendants makes sense because that is a distinctive age for other legal issues such as voting and signing contracts. He said he hopes convicted juveniles can now move more easily toward rehabilitation.

“The goal of the juvenile court system is to keep juveniles from ever offending again,” he said. Sudbury Police Chief Richard Nix favors the change.

“It makes things more relevant and equal for students while providing a clearer line for officers to follow,” he said. “A lot of people did not previously understand that 17-year-olds were tried as adults criminally.”