There are many parts of our criminal justice system that are cruel and counter-productive. A couple of weeks ago, I inveighed against one small stupid injustice: treating 17-year-olds as adults in Massachusetts’ courts and throwing them into adult prisons.
Teens imprisoned with adults are far more likely to be raped, far more likely to commit more serious crimes and return to prison, far less likely to get an education and become law-abiding citizens than those who pay for their crimes through the juvenile justice system. It’s really a no-brainer, but the Mass. Legislature has been unwilling to do anything about it. Last session Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, got a bill fixing it through the Judiciary Committee, but it died in House Ways & Means, which deemed it too expensive.
Wednesday the bill finally came up for a vote in the House – and passed unanimously.
What changed? Well, for one thing, the feds stepped in. In 2003, a diverse coalition of evangelical and civil liberties groups convinced Congress to enact the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Under that act, studies were mandated that tallied the epidemic of sexual assaults behind bars. Regulations were promulgated by the Department of Justice, one of which requires prisoners under 18 be physically separated at all times from adult prisoners. Massachusetts must comply with that rule by August 2013 or face the loss of federal grant funding. Compliance means building new wings and segregated facilities for the 17-year-olds, which would likely be more expensive than putting them into the juvenile system.
Money talks, and the Speaker listens.