In mid-March, everything changed because of COVID-19. One mom said her life changed in 24 hours. Her teenage son had been arraigned for his first offense. He was in detention, though not found guilty, with no option to be heard in court. The schools had closed, daycare closed and the juvenile courts were closed.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed into law a criminal justice reform package representing significant progress for our state, including many progressive youth justice reforms, in April. Here’s how we helped engineer that.
A new Data Points report from the organization Citizens for Juvenile Justice indicates that juvenile arrests in Massachusetts are on the decline, with the number of young people being arrested in 2011 dropping by more than 20 percent compared to 2010 findings. The report also finds violent and property offenses committed by juveniles in the state to be decreasing, with 2009 data indicating an 8 percent decrease and 4 percent decrease, respectively, from juvenile violent crime and property crime rates in 2008. Compared to 1998 data, researchers say that property crimes and violent crimes committed by juveniles have decreased dramatically, with the rates in Massachusetts for violent crime plummeting by 36 percent and property crime dropping by 45 percent over the 11-year study window. Researchers have also observed a decline in Massachusetts juvenile court charges. For the FY 2012, the total number of “youthful offender” and delinquency proceedings brought before state juvenile courts dropped 13 percent from FY 2011 data, representing nearly a 44 percent decline in total proceedings since 2008.
Massachusetts looks likely to raise the age of criminal jurisdiction to 18 next year, and may make more changes as nearly simultaneous new rules from the federal government, a U.S. Supreme Court decision and a report from the state’s Child Advocate nudge Boston lawmakers toward more reforms.
“I think there’s a lot of support” to raise the age, said state Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, as well as House sponsor of an age-raising bill that passed House and Senate committees this year. Right now, Massachusetts reserves juvenile proceedings for those under 17. Khan’s House Bill 450 simply replaced the word “seventeen” with “eighteen.”
“I’ll be working on that pretty steadily and heavily. It just doesn’t make any sense not to do that,” said Khan. That work comes as the U.S. Supreme Court and judges in state courts are more often echoing advocates for more flexibility in youth sentencing, on an argument that youths are still developing mentally and more capable of reformation than adults.
This month, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and The Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY) have partnered to launch the “Got Rights Project,” to inform Massachusetts youth about their legal rights as students. Following the passage of the state’s 2010 anti-bullying law, representatives of GLAD and BAGLY united to create and distribute materials for students, including brochures and a video package, providing youth with access to legal assistance and information. According to BAGLY Director of Programs Jessica Flaherty, the “Got Rights Projects” provides several opportunities for LGBT students to gain knowledge of their legal rights as students, as well as speak to legal service representatives of GLAD. “Systemic homo/bi/transphobia blocks access to much needed accurate legal information and support,” she is quoted in a recent article. “LGBTQ youth disproportionately experience discrimination, harassment and violence in and out of school settings.”
The “Got Rights Project” workshops will feature representatives from BAGLY as well as a lawyer from GLAD.