T.J. Parsell's crime was like lots of things teenagers do: stupid, impulsive and dangerous. On a lark, he pointed a toy gun at a clerk at Photomat kiosk and demanded cash. He walked away with $50, but not for long.
The judge failed to see the humor in Parsell's stunt, and neither he nor the law cared that, at 17, Parsell was, in terms of his psychological development, still mostly a child. He sentenced Parsell to 4 to 15 years in an adult penitentiary.
"On the first day, I was gang-raped," Parsell said this week at a conference in Newton, Mass. "After that, they flipped a coin to see whose property I was going to be." He survived his time behind bars by being the sexual slave of a stronger inmate.
"I deserved to be punished for what I did," he said. "I didn't deserve that."
But when we put 17-year-olds in adult prisons, rape is pretty much what they should expect. A soft-skinned teenage boy is the closest thing to a woman inmates can get, Parsell explained and - like it or not - sex, manhood and domination are the pillars of prison culture.
Juveniles housed in adult prisons are six times more likely to be sexually assaulted, said Parsell, now an author, filmmaker and activist, and 36 times more likely to commit suicide.
Massachusetts, progressive in so many areas, is anything but when it comes to putting kids in prison. It's one of just 12 states that treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, no matter how minor their crimes. Massachusetts puts an estimated 500 17-year-olds into adult jails and prisons every year.
Even if, as Parsell says, you share the sentiment that "if you don't want to be raped, don't go to prison," the current system makes no sense.
Want a kid in trouble with the law to learn his lesson and grow into a responsible citizen? Put him in a juvenile justice system, where his parents will be involved in the court process, where professionals experienced with adolescents will handle his case, where he'll get classroom instruction, age-appropriate mental health and substance abuse services, and where he'll be safe from adult predators.
Want to turn a troubled kid into a hardened adult criminal? Lock him up with adult thugs, in a facility where he'll get none of those things. Teens prosecuted as adults are 34 percent more likely to be arrested again than those tried as juveniles.
There's a lot that's wrong with the Massachusetts criminal justice system. It locks up too many non-violent offenders for mandatory minimum sentences. It warehouses people with mental illness or addiction, while doing next to nothing to cure them. Our prisons are overcrowded, inhumane and expensive: It costs about $45,000 a year to house each prisoner.
Page 2 of 2 - Other states, often those led by conservative Republican governors, are saving money while reducing crime by reforming their sentencing rules and getting away from the "lock-em-up" mentality. Some political leaders, including Gov. Deval Patrick, say they support reform and are hoping a study the state has commissioned from the Pew Center for the States will spark the kind of comprehensive reforms other states have made.
Meanwhile, let's get the 17-year-olds out of the adult prisons. The "Justice for Kids" bill now before the Legislature would do just that, raising the state's centuries-old age for adult criminal jurisdiction from 17 to 18. Pushed by state Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, and Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, the bill has failed to make it out of the Ways & Means Committee in past sessions, though its price tag - $20 million - is modest compared to the nearly $1 billion the state spends now on corrections.
This time, the bill may get a push from the feds. 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 through building segregated wings could be expensive, and advocates worry prisons and jails may comply by putting more 17-year-olds in solitary confinement - a brutal experience that causes psychological trauma. The simplest, and best, way to meet the federal standards is to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction.
And no, it won't put murderers in with youngsters caught shoplifting or smoking pot. Under state law, anyone 14 or older charged with murder must go into the adult system. That wouldn't change.
What would change is that every year 500 Massachusetts kids would stand a better chance of surviving their brush with the law and growing into law-abiding adults. That's not just humane for the kids, it's smart policy.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.