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.
Specifically, the new law states that children – which includes those under the age of eighteen – shall not be treated as criminals. In light of that language, it may be argued that the new law strips the trial court of jurisdiction over all court cases in which the defendant was seventeen at the time of the alleged offense, including those brought prior to the passage of the law. It may be further argued the trial court no longer has the authority to sentence defendants who were under the age of eighteen at the time the alleged offense. Whether the Supreme Judicial Court agrees with these arguments remains to be seen, but there is reason to believe that the SJC will find that the law should be applied to pending cases. The court just issued a decision that addressed whether the recently passed statute reducing minimum mandatory sentences for certain drug offenses was retroactive. In that case – Commonwealth v. Galvin – the court held that the new law was applicable to pending cases. The court reasoned that retroactivity was consistent with the manifest intent of the legislature that the benefits of the sentence reductions be applied broadly. Considering the ruling in Galvin, it is likely that the court will find An Act Expanding Juvenile Jurisdiction to be retroactive for similar reasons.
While the issue of retroactivity is still up in the air, defense attorneys will need to figure out what the best step is for clients alleged to have committed offenses at the age of seventeen and charged in adult court. Attorneys will have to think about whether the client is likely to fare better in adult court versus juvenile. For example, a district or superior court judge may be more sympathetic to a seventeen year old than a juvenile court judge, who may already be familiar with the defendant from prior juvenile court charges. On the other hand, transfer could protect the defendant from a criminal conviction – if the allegations are proven against a juvenile defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, an adjudication of delinquency, as opposed to a criminal conviction, is entered on the defendant’s criminal record. Further, seeking to have the defendant’s case transferred to juvenile court could result in a transfer of the defendant from adult jail to a less restrictive environment, like a juvenile detention center. The questions are many, and a decision about whether to attempt to transfer a case from adult court to juvenile must be made after careful consideration of all the various factors.
If your child is currently facing charges in adult court and was seventeen at the time of the alleged offense, you will need an experienced and dedicated attorney to help sort through these issues and figure out what the best course of action will be. Attorney Daniel Cappetta practices in both juvenile and adult court and can help provide answers. Call him today for a free consultation.