Lawyers Journal

New age to dawn under juvenile justice bill

MBA-supported legislation is expected to raise the age of Juvenile Court jurisdiction to 18, providing 17-year-old defendants access to the benefits of the juvenile justice system.

As of the writing of this article, House Bill 1432 had passed both the House and the Senate unanimously. At press time, the bill awaits action by the governor. With final passage of the legislation and the governor's signature expected soon, practitioners need to understand the impact of the law on 17-year-olds and some of the subtle changes in Juvenile Court practice contained in the bill.

House Bill 1432 provides that the age of Juvenile Court jurisdiction for delinquency and youthful offender cases will be 18, instead of 17. The bill makes no changes for minors charged with first- or second-degree murder.

Seventeen-year-olds will not be allowed in adult prison or jail. Instead of going to county jail or state prison, 17-year-olds will be detained at and committed to the Department of Youth Services (DYS). Much of the impetus for this new law is the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which places restrictions on holding minors in the same facilities as adults.

Seventeen-year-olds will no longer receive an adult criminal record. The House bill also changes access to all criminal records of 17-year-olds, allowing access only to cases that involved those 18 or over when the crime was committed. This appears to change access even for those who were 17 when their cases were handled previously in adult court.

Because the Juvenile Court will have jurisdiction over crimes committed by youth before their 18th birthday, jurisdiction will be expanded to allow the court to process those cases up to the child's 20th birthday, as long as the case begins before their 19th birthday. If a child is not apprehended until after their 19th birthday for a crime committed before their 18th birthday, the court will have to proceed under the provisions of G.L.c. 119, §72A, which is the law that determines if a case should be transferred to adult court. There would seem to be the possibility for more proceedings to be brought under §72A, for crimes committed while someone is 17, when a young person is not initially brought to court until after they have turned 19.

The bill provides that juveniles whose cases are disposed of before their 18th birthday will be committed to DYS until their 18th birthday. Those whose cases are disposed of after their 18th birthday, but before their 19th birthday, will be committed until their 19th birthday. And those whose cases are disposed of after their 19th birthday, but before their 20th birthday, will be committed to their 20th birthday.

The mandatory commitment to DYS for certain gun offenses is changed to provide that those under 18 will be committed for six months or until their 18th birthday, and those committed who are already 18 will be committed for six months or until their 19th birthday, whichever occurs first.

The bill also raises the jurisdictional age for harassment orders, providing that all requests for such orders where the defendant is under 18 shall be brought in the Juvenile Court.

House Bill 1432 provides that it will go into effect immediately upon passage, so as soon as the governor signs the bill charges brought against 17-year-olds will be in Juvenile Court instead of adult court. There is no discussion in the bill of transitional provisions for cases pending in adult court or charges brought for crimes committed before the effective date of the bill's passage, but there is a section that would allow sheriffs to transfer 17-year-olds now being held in adult jail to DYS.

The unanimous vote of Massachusetts legislators demonstrates that they are looking forward to the benefits of having 17-year-olds in Juvenile Court. Lawyers who represent juveniles are also hailing this new law, which will keep their 17-year-old clients out of adult court and adult jail.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association