On September 18, 2013, Governor Deval Patrick signed An Act Expanding Juvenile Jurisdiction into law. Before this law was signed, all seventeen year olds accused of a crime in Massachusetts were automatically treated as adults, regardless of the circumstances or the severity of the offense. This new legislation raises the upper limit of juvenile court jurisdiction in Massachusetts from seventeen years old to eighteen (the law does not change the juvenile court’s lack of jurisdiction over first or second degree murder cases where the defendant is fourteen or older on the date of the offense). Advocates for raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction have long argued that treating all seventeen year olds accused of a crime as adults is out of step with national standards – a majority of other states and the federal government use eighteen as the starting age for adult criminal jurisdiction. The legislature, and ultimately Governor Patrick, answered their arguments with the new law, striking a balance between holding young people accountable for their actions while acknowledging that they are in a unique position to change and grow from their mistakes.
The statute is effective immediately, but there are still many questions about its applicability. Of particular concern is the impact that the bill will have on pending cases in district and superior court. As a general rule, changes in the law are applied prospectively – meaning that a new law only applies to cases initiated after the law is in effect. There are, however, several exceptions to this rule, including where the law explicitly states that it will be retroactive, or where a lack of retroactivity would cause a result that is inconsistent with the intent of the law. This law is silent as to retroactivity. Therefore, it must be determined whether a failure to make the law retroactive would conflict with the law’s intent. On September 16, 2013, the Chief Justice of the Trial Court, Paula Carey, issued a memorandum on the issue of retroactivity. The memorandum states that the trial court considers the new law to be prospective only and that the court does not intend to apply the law to pending cases. Chief Justice Carey’s memorandum, however, is not likely to be the last word on this issue. To the contrary, it is extremely likely that defense attorneys and other advocates will argue that the law does apply to pending matters.