‘Young people are worth all of our efforts’

By AARON CURTIS | [email protected] | Lowell Sun

February 4, 2024 at 7:00 a.m.

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There’s childhood and adulthood, and in between is adolescence — a tumultuous time of physical and cognitive growth that lays the foundation for who a person becomes.

What can make this period tumultuous is displayed in research that shows adolescents tend to take more risks compared to adults, engage in more sensation-seeking behavior, and are more likely to delay gratification in pursuit of immediate pleasure.

The research, compiled in a 2022 paper by the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) at Massachusetts General Hospital, referenced Miller v. Alabama, a U.S. Supreme Court case where the court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. The ruling noted that the “hallmark features” of adolescence include “immaturity, impetuosity, and a failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”

These behavioral characteristics can be attributed to a lack of a fully developed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that facilitates executive function, self-control, and emotion regulation. The National Institutes of Health notes the development of the prefrontal cortex is not complete until the mid-20s.

According to CLBB, the research further demonstrates that adolescents have the overwhelming capacity to change and mature in response to experience. When an adolescent is subjected to positive influences, it can be advantageous to brain development.

This brain science is a key feature referenced by proponents of a bill currently under consideration by lawmakers on Beacon Hill, “An Act to Promote Public Safety and Better Outcomes for Young Adults,” more commonly known as “Raise the Age.” The bill would gradually raise the age of offenders allowed in the juvenile justice system to 18- to 20-year-olds. Currently, offenders in that age range are automatically tried as adults.

According to Senate President Karen Spilka, a person who commits a crime at 18 simply does not have the wherewithal to realize the impact their actions might have on the rest of their lives.

Praising this legislation are members of UTEC, Lowell’s youth violence intervention, reentry and advocacy program, who in September testified before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary in support of the reform.

“As you know, this legislation is not only backed up by the scientific evidence that indicates the continuing development of the brain and decision-making capabilities well into a person’s mid-twenties, it is also focused on bringing about true rehabilitation,” UTEC CEO Gregg Croteau told the committee.

This legislation would not be the first time lawmakers pushed to keep younger offenders in the state’s juvenile justice system.

In 2013, Massachusetts raised the age to keep 17-year-olds out of the adult criminal system. In 2013, supporters of the reform argued that keeping younger people out of the adult system would improve public safety, decrease crime, and reduce recidivism.

Crime statistics released by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, and cited by the Citizens for Juvenile Justice, support their argument.

From 2013 to 2023, the data shows there has been a 53% reduction in arrests of those under the age of 18, and a 73% drop in arrests of those ages 18 to 20.

Supporters expect the same results with the pending legislation.

“We think we’re headed in the right direction with the previous ‘raise the age,’ and we think this is the logical next step,” Croteau said.

Those within the juvenile justice system are required to attend school and rehabilitation programs, which Croteau said holds them accountable, while staying on track for long-term rehabilitation. Exposing young offenders to toxic environments, like adult prisons, meanwhile, can cause more harm than good.

Research for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that similar adolescents had a 34% lower recidivism rate when they were in the juvenile system rather than the adult system.

Charles “Castro” Rosario, a UTEC streetworker fellow, was 21 years old when he was sent to prison for murder. He served 20 years behind bars, released just eight months ago.

Rosario was born in Venezuela, then moved to the U.S. when he was a small child. He lived in poverty in Worcester, raised by a single mother, who was always working. The now 41-year-old man recalled growing up during a period of his youth terrified of a stepfather who would regularly beat him. He said he was also bullied by peers for not speaking English and not wearing the right type of clothes.

Rosario eventually turned to the street in search of acceptance. He ended up in the juvenile criminal system at age 15. By age 17, he was wrapped up in the adult system.

Rosario detailed the toxic environment of prison and described how it hinders an individual’s growth.

“For young men, it is more damaging than it is good to be in that type of system, because at that point in time, your instincts are all about survival,” Rosario said. “When you’re coming in as a young man in a grown man’s prison, it’s about establishing yourself as the somebody who is not the one to be preyed upon.”

While in the “belly of the beast,” Rosario added, it’s impossible to sit down and think, “Where am I going to be in 20 years?”

“You’re too young for that, you get swept up, and your brain is still developing, you’re still impressionable,” Rosario said. “You’re going to fall into the pitfalls that a lot of young men do.”

Viengsamay “Paul” Chaleunphong, who serves as a UTEC reentry manager, was 17 years old when he ended up in prison for murder. He spent 21 years there.

“It took me away from my family,” the now 43-year-old Chaleunphong said. “It takes a lot away from you. Early on, personally, it was really tough. Going in there at a very young age. I was caught up in the system and prison politics, trying to follow what the crowd was following, not really having enough time to focus on myself.”

Both Chaleunphong and Rosario testified in front of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary in September.

“I believe that all emerging adults deserve a second chance at life so that they are able to contribute to their communities instead of being lost in our justice system,” Chaleunphong said. “Young people are worth all of our efforts.”

Last month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that sentencing adults under 21 to life without the possibility of parole violates the state’s constitution. Croteau described it as a win for young adults and the advocates of Raise the Age.

Following the ruling, Attorney General Andrea Campbell —  who has supported Raise the Age  — issued a statement praising the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling.

“Today’s ruling underscores the importance of our legal system acknowledging the ongoing brain development of young people in order to improve public safety, reduce recidivism and deliver justice,” Campbell said. “The science emphatically demonstrates that young people have an extraordinary capacity to change and mature, and our justice system should provide them the invaluable opportunity to turn their lives around and fulfil their potential.”

As for those concerned Raise the Age is “soft on crime,” the bill has measures in place that allow violence or other heinous crimes to still be treated as such. Younger people charged with serious offenses, including murder, as well as youthful offender cases, would still be eligible for adult sentencing, which is currently the law for children ages 14 and older.

Raise the Age has not yet been reported out of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

Follow Aaron Curtis on X, formerly known as Twitter, @aselahcurtis