It’s Time to Raise the Age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction in Massachusetts. So, What’s Holding Us Back?

Issue January/February 2023 January 2023 By Cristina F. Freitas and Debbie F. Freitas
Juvenile & Child Welfare Law Section Review
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From left: Cristina F. Freitas and Debbie F. Freitas

Kids are different. But that well-known truth to date has omitted the critical age group that straddles childhood and adulthood: transition-age youth who are over 18 years old but still developing cognitively. This group of youth should be treated differently, too. Scientific research has confirmed that adolescents and young adults are highly amenable to change. The malleability of this special population is best harnessed by the Massachusetts Juvenile Court because of its unique legal tools and its specially trained professionals who understand adolescent brain development and mobilize its tenets every day to fundamentally change each youth’s knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. 

From the attorneys to probation to the judges, the youth who come before the Juvenile Court experience a very different system than those that appear in District Court. More than any other court in the commonwealth, the Juvenile Court focuses on a holistic approach to not only ensure youth don’t reoffend, but also to support the youth in becoming their best selves — accessing education, learning vocational skills, and achieving their life goals in a way that both reduces recidivism and puts kids on a path to future success. With so-called “raise the age” bills in process in the legislature, it’s time to address all of the perceived barriers that have stalled Massachusetts from realizing this needed jurisdictional change for transition-age youth.

If Massachusetts does not raise Juvenile Court jurisdiction beyond 18 years old, it’s not because the Juvenile Court doesn’t have experience in dealing with this special population — because it does. The Juvenile Court has already been engaging successfully with youth who are 18-22 years old in the context of permanency for young adult (PYA) cases involving older foster youth who sign on voluntarily with the Department of Children and Families (DCF). These PYA cases have allowed youth to grow into incredible adults with the support of Juvenile Court professionals. The Juvenile Court also already has the legal tools necessary to address serious violent crime in adolescence. Indeed, the Juvenile Court already has a youthful offender statute that allows the Juvenile Court to tailor effective individualized sentences for youth that can include the identical sentence a Superior Court could impose upon an adult. 

If Massachusetts does not raise Juvenile Court jurisdiction beyond 18 years old, it’s also not because the Juvenile Court system is already burgeoning — because it is not. The commonwealth’s youth justice system has continued to dramatically shrink, as documented by the Emerging Adult Justice Project at the Columbia University Justice Lab in November of 2020. The Massachusetts Juvenile Court caseload has decreased over time — a 24% decline in delinquency and 51% reduction in youthful offender case filings occurred between 2014 and 2020 even though the Massachusetts Juvenile Court started serving a larger pool of youth with the inclusion of 17-year-olds in its jurisdiction.

If Massachusetts does not raise Juvenile Court jurisdiction beyond 18 years old, it’s also not because the additional older youth will overburden the Juvenile Court — because they will not.

According to data compiled by the Massachusetts State Police, there was a 75% decline in arrests of youth under the age of 18 from 2008-19. In the same time period, the number of arrests of youth ages 18-20 declined 70% as well. These figures demonstrate that expanding Juvenile Court jurisdiction to transition-age youth will not affect the capacity of the Juvenile Court to extend its life-changing outcomes to older youth.

If Massachusetts does not raise Juvenile Court jurisdiction beyond 18 years old, it’s not because only jails have room for older youth — because that’s not accurate. The number of youth detained at the Department of Youth Services (DYS) has declined over the last decade by 78%, with more than half of this total decline occurring after 17-year-olds were included in the Juvenile Court’s jurisdiction. Similarly, the number of committed youth declined 76% from 2008 to 2020. DYS has long been recognized to better align with what we know youth need to be successful and strives to provide the young people it encounters with the skills, supports and resources necessary to engage safely with their communities and lead productive and fulfilling lives. Older adolescents and young adults could also benefit from the positive youth development model DYS utilizes.

If Massachusetts does not raise Juvenile Court jurisdiction beyond 18 years old, it’s not because public safety will be harmed — because it won’t. Public health research identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that transition-age youth exhibit lower recidivism rates when they were maintained in the juvenile legal system versus the adult legal system. Far from harming public safety, expanding Juvenile Court jurisdiction beyond 18 years old will both improve public safety and decrease crime.

So, what is holding Massachusetts back from implementing this smart, effective and necessary reform? Hopefully nothing in 2023. The Juvenile Court has the capacity and skill to address the needs and barriers that transition-age youth are encountering in their journey to adulthood. It’s time we give the Juvenile Court the jurisdiction it needs to help transition-age youth become their best selves. We owe it to the youth and to our communities to implement this reform. 

Cristina F. Freitas and Debbie F. Freitas are members of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Juvenile & Child Welfare Section Council. Cristina and Debbie are law partners at Freitas & Freitas LLP in Lowell, where they represent parents and children in the child welfare and juvenile legal systems. They have been in practice since 2010. The opinions expressed herein are their own.