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SJC Rules that Raise the Age Legislation is Not Retroactive

barbed-wire-1390182-mThis past Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision in Commonwealth v. Watts. The decision held that the Raise the Age legislation, which raised the age of defendants who could be charged in adult court from seventeen to eighteen, is not retroactive, and therefore does not apply to cases that were pending at the time the law was enacted on September 18, 2013.

The Watts decision addressed two cases involving seventeen year old defendants that were charged prior to the enactment of the Raise the Age legislation, but whose cases were pending at the time the law was passed. After the passage of the law, both of the defendants moved to dismiss the charges against them on the ground that the District Court no longer had jurisdiction over them because they were seventeen years of age at the time the alleged offenses occurred and when the criminal proceedings began. The respective trial court judges denied the motions and both of the defendants filed for further appellate review.

In making its decision, the SJC noted that, under G. L. c. 4, § 6 and other applicable case law, a newly enacted statute is presumptively prospective – meaning that it only applies to charges brought after the enactment of the statute. There are only two exceptions to this rule – where solely prospective application would: (1) be inconsistent with the “manifest intent” of the legislature; or (2) be “repugnant to the context of the same statute.”

As to the first exception, the presumption of prospective application is inconsistent with the manifest intent of the legislature if the legislature includes a clearly expressed intent for the statute to apply retroactively. The SJC found, however, that there was no such clearly expressed intent in the Raise the Age legislation. The Court pointed to the language of the legislation, which states both that “no criminal proceeding shall be begun against any person who prior to his eighteenth birthday commits an offense against the laws of the commonwealth . . . without first proceeding against him as a delinquent child,” and that the legislation “shall take effect upon its passage” (September 18, 2013).

The Court stated that, when the provisions were read together, the act provides that on and after the act’s passage on September 18, 2013, criminal proceedings may not be begun in the Superior Court or in the District Court against juveniles who were seventeen years of age at the time of the alleged offense. Therefore, the act only protects juveniles who are seventeen years of age and who are charged with committing a crime on or after September 18, 2013, and juveniles who were seventeen years of age at the time of an alleged offense committed before September 18, 2013, but who had not been charged until on or after September 18, 2013.

The Court found that there was no language in the Raise the Age legislation that indicated that it should be applied retroactively to cases involving juveniles who were seventeen years of age at the time of the alleged offense and whose criminal cases in the Superior or District Court were pending on September 18, 2013.

The Court also went on to find that, in addition to the lack of express intent for the act to apply retroactively, the amendment did not meet the second exception to prospective application: repugnance to the context of the same statute. The Court specifically stated that there are no other provisions in the act that would render prospective application of the act “repugnant.”

The Court reasoned that the purpose of the act (to protect minors from certain harms experienced in the adult criminal justice system) did not render solely prospective application “repugnant.” The Court noted that approximately 8,000 cases would have to be transferred to the juvenile justice system, and that the juvenile system would be unable to provide the requisite services necessary to assist the juveniles in these cases. The juvenile justice system’s inability to handle the influx of cases would thereby undermine the purpose of the act, because it would put these juveniles in a system that could not provide the services necessary to help them. The Court also noted the significant practical implications of transferring these 8,000 cases to the juvenile justice system’s case load, concluding that the “consequences of applying the act retroactively to cases…simply were not taken into consideration by the [l]egislature when enacting the act.”

Lastly, the Court rejected the defendants’ claim that the legislation had to be applied retroactively to comply with the US Attorney General’s requirement that, for penal institutions to receive federal grant money, defendants under eighteen years of age must be held separately from adult inmates. The Court stated that the consequence of a failure to comply is a reduction of grant money, which can be avoided if the state provides an assurance that some of the grant money would be earmarked for the purpose of enabling the state to fully comply with the federal requirements. The Court stated that the fact that full compliance may not occur instantaneously was not a circumstance that rendered prospective application of the act “repugnant” to the purposes of the law.

Although the Court’s decision is disappointing to those seventeen year olds with pending cases at the time of the Raise the Age legislation, the fact that a defendant is a young adult still plays a significant role in the adjudication of the case – even if the case is not handled in the juvenile system. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is a skilled attorney who has extensive experience working in both the juvenile justice system, and with young adults facing charges in District and Superior Court. Attorney Cappetta will make sure that you are well represented, regardless of where you are facing charges. Call him today for a free consultation.