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Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Reform A Step In The Wrong Direction

.. which the founders based the juvenile justice system is that juveniles are different from adults and need different treatment. Throughout its history, the juvenile justice system has strived to uphold this principle by providing benevolent and less formal means than adult courts for dealing with the unique problems of juvenile offenders. For instance, juvenile courts typically subscribed to the philosophy of rehabilitation, rather than punishment, and closed proceedings to the public to protect juveniles from harmful stigma. Massachusetts, in providing for the automatic trial in adult court of juveniles charged with certain crimes, moves away from the traditional benevolent, rehabilitative philosophy of the juvenile justice system and toward a retributive or “just desserts” philosophy.

Critics dismiss this contention, stating a judge in the adult court still has the authority to impose a juvenile sentence on the offender. However, given the adult criminal court’s goal of punishment and lack of experience with juveniles, a judge is likely to impose a juvenile sentence only in the rarest of cases. Moving away from the traditional philosophy of the juvenile justice system by automatically treating certain juveniles as adults increases their propensity for crime and increases the risk to society. Studies indicate that juveniles tried as adults typically do not receive longer or more severe sentences than those juveniles tried in the juvenile court. The studies also suggest that juveniles tried as adults have a higher rate of recidivism than those juveniles with like profiles who are charged with similar offenses and tried in the juvenile justice system. The higher rate of recidivism for juveniles tried as adults is likely the result of their being released into society undereducated, unsocialized, unemployable and in their physical prime.

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In other words, the adult criminal system sets juveniles up for failure by making them into the very model of what we wish to avoid. Therefore, if one truly values public safety, he/she should not support automatic transfers to adult court for certain juveniles because they will eventually return to society and, in most cases, to crime. To recap, the automatic trial as adult provision contained within the Juvenile Justice Reform Act is unnecessary, contradicts the traditional notions of the juvenile justice system and jeopardizes public safety. The abolishment of transfer hearings and creation of post-trial amenability hearings has eliminated the need for automatic transfer to a court. Additionally, the adult transfer provision counters the benevolent, rehabilitative philosophy of the juvenile justice system by shipping juveniles whom society can rehabilitate to the punishment oriented adult criminal court.

Finally, the policy of treating juveniles as adults is likely to backfire because they eventually return to the streets undereducated, unsocialized, unemployable and in their physical prime, which often results in a return to a life of crime. III. OPENING JUVENILE PROCEEDINGS WHERE PROSECUTORS SEEK AN ADULT SENTENCE IS UNFAIR TO JUVENILES WHO RECEIVE JUVENILE SENTENCES AND RESULTS IN HARMFUL STIGMATIZATION. Under the reformed juvenile justice system a prosecutor can seek an adult sentence for a juvenile via two methods. The first, called direct file, permits the prosecutor to file the complaint in adult court.

If the prosecutor pursues this method, the state tries the youth in adult court and the proceedings are open to the public. The second, and more troublesome method, allows the prosecutor to try the juvenile in juvenile court and seek an adult sentence there. These proceedings are also open to the public and are unfair to juveniles who do not receive an adult sentence. Furthermore, opening juvenile proceedings to the public stigmatizes juveniles as criminals for the rest of their lives. The section of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act that allows the opening of juvenile hearings to the public where an adult sentence is sought will expose some juveniles to public scrutiny even though they ultimately receive a juvenile sentence.

Currently, a Massachusetts prosecutor has the option of opening juvenile proceedings to the public by seeking an adult sentence. Although prosecutors seek an adult sentence, the judge still has the discretion to sentence the offender as a juvenile after a post-trail amenability to rehabilitation hearing. Thus, it is entirely possible and probable that a number of cases in juvenile court which result in a juvenile sentence will be open to public scrutiny. Such a system is unfair because it allows prosecutors to throw open the doors of secrecy in juvenile court even if there is little chance of an adult sentence being imposed. Opening juvenile proceedings to the public also results in juveniles carrying around the taint of criminality which may lead to recidivism.

Generally, proceedings in juvenile court have been closed to the public and press to prevent the stigmatization of minors and encourage rehabilitation. Allowing prosecutors to open juvenile judicial proceedings to the public will undermine rehabilitative efforts by creating a self-perpetuating stigma of delinquency, placing an accompanying stigma on family members, which could impair the juvenile’s familial relationships, encouraging youths to commit crimes for publicity or attention and contributing to a deterioration in the juvenile’s interaction with his peers, the educational system and the surrounding community. Because prosecutors are frequently unconcerned with the interests of juveniles and cater to public sentiment, the decision to open juvenile judicial proceedings should be left in the hands of an impartial decision maker. To summarize, prosecutors should not have the option to open juvenile proceedings where they seek an adult sentence to the public because it is unfair to juveniles who receive juvenile sentences and undermines rehabilitative efforts. Opening hearings to the public in juvenile court when the prosecutor seeks an adult sentence will result in some cases being held subject to public scrutiny even though the judge imposes a juvenile sentence.

Such an arrangement is unfair to juveniles who are amenable to rehabilitation in the juvenile system. Additionally, opening juvenile hearings to the public is likely to undermine rehabilitative efforts by creating a self-perpetuating stigma of delinquency, placing an accompanying stigma on family members, which could impair the juvenile’s familial relationships, encouraging youths to commit crimes for publicity or attention and contributing to a deterioration in the juvenile’s interaction with his peers, the educational system and the surrounding community. Therefore, prosecutors should not have the power to open juvenile court proceedings to the public by seeking an adult sentence. IV. CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS The Massachusetts Great and General Court, in attempting to reform the juvenile justice system, has embarked upon a noble and worthwhile endeavor. However, the reforms instituted by the legislature are the product of faulty perceptions and erroneous beliefs rather than informed policy making.

If the citizens of Massachusetts are truly interested in changing the juvenile justice system for the better, it is not too late to petition the legislature to repeal and amend the detrimental sections of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act. The citizens of Massachusetts could also contact their representatives and ask them to introduce new legislation that benefits both juveniles and society. One may wonder that if the Juvenile Justice Reform Act is bad public policy, what policies should be implemented to reform the juvenile justice system. Perhaps the first step our legislature should take is to implement preventative programs, such as parenting classes, after school and summer athletic programs and academic intervention, to keep juveniles from entering the juvenile justice system in the first place. Not only are such interventions and programs effective, they are also cheaper than incarceration.

The average yearly cost of incarcerating a juvenile ranges from $35,000 to $64,000. On the other hand, the average cost of academic intervention is approximately $4,300 and a year at Harvard costs $30,000. Therefore, for the amount that it takes to incarcerate one juvenile for a year, the Commonwealth could prevent approximately 14 juveniles from entering the juvenile justice system. In addition to implementing preventative programs, Massachusetts should examine the rehabilitation programs and measures of other states and adopt those that are effective. Although most states have moved toward recognizing punishment and accountability as the goals of the juvenile justice system, no state has entirely eliminated the philosophy of rehabilitation.

Many of these states have proven rehabilitation programs and measures in place. For instance, Utah has founded the Intermountain Specialized Abuse Treatment Center in Salt Lake City to rehabilitate juvenile sex offenders, and California has established boot camps for juvenile delinquents. By examining the rehabilitation programs of other states and adopting those that are effective, Massachusetts could design a new and successful rehabilitation system for juveniles. A third and more practical possibility is that Massachusetts could increase funding to its existing juvenile rehabilitation system. In 1989, the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, an agency devoted to helping youths choose productive, crime-free lives, while keeping the public safe, was named the best juvenile agency in the United States by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

However, several years later the Department of Youth Services came under fire when several youths in its custody died, and a youth who was away without leave participated in a double murder. Officials at the Department of Youth Services maintain that the agency has fallen into disarray as a result of budget cuts and overcrowding. Thus, by increasing the budget of the Department of Youth Services, the Commonwealth can restore the agency to its former prominence and, at the same time, add vitality to the philosophy of rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system.

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