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Massachusetts Passes Comprehensive Youth Justice Reforms

May 31, 2018
Josh Gordon

In April of this year, NJJN member Citizens for Juvenile Justice (CfJJ) helped pass landmark youth justice reforms in the Massachusetts’ legislature with strong bipartisan support. The changes, most of which will go into effect in July, will rewrite much of the landscape for youth justice in the state. The bill, S.2371 passed with the energy and hard work of CfJJ’s coalition of more than sixty organizations -- including two separate youth organizing groups. The broad range of issues tackled in the legislation ranged from preventing children’s entry into the legal system to ensuring developmentally appropriate policies for justice-involved youth. Some of these critical changes are included below:  

Sets 12 as the Lower Age of Jurisdiction

Children under the age of 12 will now be excluded from the legal system altogether, aligning Massachusetts with international standards. Before this bill passed, youth as young as 7 could be arrested and brought to court, and most of the children under the age of 12 who were arrested were brought to court on low level offenses. This bill sets Massachusetts as a leader in the country on this issue.

Creates Expungement Opportunities

The legislation creates limited opportunities for expungement of misdemeanors and most felony offenses committed before age 21, after a waiting period. Prior to passage, even cases that were dismissed in court could not be expunged, which enabled a raft of collateral consequences for young people. The new law, however, limits expungement to those with only one court case on their record.

Creates Parent-Child Privilege

Massachusetts is now one of only seven states in which conversations between parents and their minor children are protected, where neither can choose to or be legally compelled to testify against each other in court. Parent-child privilege allows parents to give their children the guidance and support they need without fear that it will be used against them.

Establishes a Statutory Framework for Diversion

For the first time, Massachusetts now has a statewide legal framework for judicial pre-arraignment diversion. Before the bill, only police and prosecutors could divert prior to arraignment. Now, judges have the authority to divert youth from court prior to arraignment -- thereby helping youth avoid a record. The Office of Probation, which operates statewide,will administer an assessment of youth brought to court to enable more standardized diversion practices.  

Decriminalizes School-Based Public Order Offenses

The bill decriminalizes the public order offenses of disorderly conduct and disturbing lawful assembly for students under 18 in school grounds or at school events. A joint CfJJ/ACLU report found that youth with disabilities and youth of color were disproportionately arrested for non-violent or verbal misconduct. Students can now no longer be adjudicated for this kind of typical student behavior. The legislation also sets requirements on Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) between school districts and police departments that utilize school resource officers. This bill provides guidance on MOUs that spells out that the responsibility for school discipline lies with the school administration, and ensures that school resource officers receive the training they need to work with children and adolescents.

Creates a Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board

Massachusetts will now have a permanent board composed of the three branches of government, advocates, providers, and parents of youth in the justice system who will meet regularly to continue to investigate opportunities for reform in the state. They are initially charged with looking at raising the age of jurisdiction to 21, improving data collection and reporting, and assessing the impact of childhood trauma on juvenile justice involvement.

And More…

The bill codified the juvenile court's policy banning indiscriminate shackling of children in court, codified the department of youth service's model policy significantly limiting solitary confinement of children, decriminalized violations by youth of local ordinances, and raised the felony threshold from $250 to $1200.

“Effective justice policy must be based on reliable and publicly accessible data.” said Sana Fadel, CfJJ Acting Executive Director. “We are excited that this bill supports continued research and debate, including bringing together key stakeholders to make data- and science-informed recommendations on improving outcomes for young adults, for whom the criminal legal system creates the worst outcomes at the highest cost.”

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