Judge says recent escape exposes gaps in Massachusetts’s juvenile correctional system

Dorchester Juvenile Court Judge Leslie Harris, who presided over the case of a 17-year-old manslaughter suspect who fled the grounds of Tewksbury State Hospital last week, stated that the patient was admitted there voluntarily — and took issue with police and media characterizations of Jeremy Price’s fleeing of the facility as “an escape” or “a breakout.”

The incident prompted a massive manhunt from the Merrimack Valley to Boston, as police warned residents of the violent nature of the escapee. “Price is a violent individual, and has been convicted of assaults and armed robbery,” said Tewksbury Police Chief Timothy Sheehan.

Tewksbury police said in a statement that Price has “numerous violent offenses on his record” and was charged as recently as August with assault and battery on a public employee, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and shoplifting.

Price was tried for manslaughter in 2007 for causing the death of 41 year-old Michael Hansbury of Mattapan. Price allegedly punched the victim, who then fell and hit his head, causing his death. On Feb. 18, 2009, Harris signed an order finding Price not competent to stand trial and ordered him to be evaluated for placement in a treatment setting.

Since then, Price has repeatedly fled his treatment centers. On Aug. 4, 2009, officials sought a warrant after he jumped out of a state Department of Children and Families car in Dorchester, according to a warrant request in Price’s case file.

He was later placed at Easter Seals in New Hampshire, where prosecutors said he fled once and also escaped en route to the facility, according to a filing regarding his placement.

According to a warrant request, officials sought another warrant after he removed his court-ordered GPS monitoring device while still in New Hampshire.

“He had every right to leave,” Harris said as he acknowledged that he knew how easy it would be for Price to escape the center before placing him there.

Judge Harris said he was handcuffed by the system, “everyone involved with his case, including Jeremy, knew this was not a lockup… This was a voluntary attendance on his part. “He was sent there — not for punishment — but for treatment,” Harris said.

The fact that the facility was not secured was partly why Price’s admission to the hospital was made voluntary in the first place, Harris said. According to the Boston Herald, Harris, Price’s attorney and the district attorney, considered Price “a low risk” to the community.

“This was not a child looking around to hurt people,” Harris said. “There were other young people who were provoking him” to beat up Michael Hansbury.

According to Judge Harris, the issue was not necessarily that Price fled the facility, but rather it was how he did it: “He should have told us and we would have picked him up…,” Harris said. “His lawyer was away so he couldn’t call her.”

Price was being treated at the Centerpoint Intensive Residential Treatment Program, a 16-bed program that serves adolescent boys between the ages of 13-18 with psychiatric conditions, before he scaled a 15-foot fence and fled from the program last week. Price was captured by Boston and State Police and returned to the custody of the Department of Youth Services after a two-day search found him in Dorchester. Judge Harris reinstated bail at $100,000. Price is due in court again on May 26.

Tewksbury State Hospital has had a history of escaped patients, often with violent, criminal histories. Several of these patients have gone on to commit crimes while on the run.

Massachusetts State Representative  James Miceli of Tewksbury stated that Centerpoint Director Candy Ingalls, told him that she warned Judge Harris that Price would be able to flee the facility if he wished — even pointing out to the judge on his tour of the facility the stretch of fencing that Price could easily jump. The judge asked that Price be housed there anyway, so she’d didn’t refuse his request.

“You (Harris) put him in the facility that he could walk out of,” Miceli said. “He absolutely didn’t belong there. It’s like watching the coming attractions of the movie.

“That judge knew full well that they were putting him in a cracker box.”

David Ball, a Centerpoint spokesman, said Ingalls took the judge on a tour of the facility, making clear the strengths and weaknesses of the program and that it was “not a correctional facility.”

Judge Harris says he believes that this case exposes a gap in the states correctional system for juveniles who commit violent crimes but can’t be convicted because they are deemed mentally incompetent. “For us in the juvenile court, we don’t have enough options and that’s very concerning to us,” Harris said. “If an adult is found incompetent for standing trial, they can send them to Bridgewater, which is a secured facility, but we don’t have that for juveniles.”

The only other option would have been for Price to go back to the streets without treatment, since he was not convicted of a crime — and the state only allows for someone like Price to be held in pretrial detention for a limited period of time, Harris said.

-Attorney John J. MacLaughlan

About Attorney John J. MacLaughlan

John MacLaughlan is Massachusetts licensed attorney as well as a Boston police officer. John is currently assigned to the Youth Violence Strike Force (Gang Unit). He is a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Law with a concentration in Labor Law. He holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well as a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. John has taught Defensive Tactics, Firearms, Use of Force, Applied Patrol Procedures, and Police Response to Active Shooters to sworn police officers and police academy recruits. Prior to becoming a Boston Police Officer, John served for 9 years as a police officer in Lowell, where he was a member of the Police Dive Team and Patrol Rifle Team.
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