Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

The Juvenile Justice System: The Impact of Rehabilitation on Juvenile Custody

May 17, 2024
| Spring 2024 Vol. 68 #2

by Brooke Hartley

The overriding purpose of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation not punishment. The juvenile justice system recognizes the inherent differences between juvenile and adult offenders. At its core, the system is built upon the principle that children who commit crimes have diminished culpability and a greater capacity for change than adults. See Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479 (2012).  The Supreme Judicial Court and the Massachusetts Appeals Court have recently clarified how this principle shapes the law regarding the custody of juveniles. The Courts have reaffirmed that rehabilitation should be the guiding principle of the juvenile justice system in the context of juvenile custody determinations, except in the case of juveniles charged with murder.

Juveniles can be divided into three different categories depending on the gravity of the crime with which the juvenile is charged: (1) juveniles under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court and committed to the custody of the Department of Youth Services (“DYS”); (2) juveniles indicted as youthful offenders who may receive an adult sentence or who may be held in DYS custody; and (3) juveniles charged with murder who are treated as adults. This article addresses changes and clarifications in the law regarding the custody status of the first and third categories of juveniles.

The first category of juveniles, juveniles under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court and committed to the custody of the DYS, are entitled to rehabilitative services rather than punishment.  In Commonwealth v. Noah N., 489 Mass. 498 (2022), the Supreme Judicial Court addressed the custody status of these juveniles. In relevant part, G.L. c. 119, § 58, expressly states that a juvenile’s commitment to the custody of DYS will end when the juvenile reaches the age of eighteen. Under certain circumstances, however, the Juvenile Court has continuing jurisdiction after the juvenile turns eighteen. General Laws c. 119, § 72(a) provides that “[t]he divisions of the juvenile court department shall continue to have jurisdiction over children who attain their eighteenth birthday pending final adjudication of their cases.” Practically speaking, this provision leads many juveniles to resolve their cases immediately before turning eighteen.  Unless final adjudication of the case is pending, the juvenile will receive rehabilitative services through DYS only until his or her eighteenth birthday, when the Juvenile Court loses jurisdiction and the case is disposed.

In Noah N., 489 Mass. at 499, the juvenile filed a tender of plea form approximately one month before his eighteenth birthday. A week later, the Commonwealth moved to continue sentencing until after the juvenile’s eighteenth birthday, contending that there was not sufficient time for rehabilitation. Such a continuance would have prevented the case from reaching final adjudication before the juvenile’s eighteenth birthday and thus allowed the Juvenile Court jurisdiction over the juvenile for another year, until his nineteenth birthday.  The Supreme Judicial Court addressed whether a Juvenile Court judge can allow such a continuance for the express purpose of extending the juvenile’s DYS commitment.  The Court concluded that such a continuance may be allowed only if, after an evidentiary hearing, the Commonwealth can prove by clear and convincing evidence that continued commitment is necessary to ensure rehabilitation of the juvenile. Id., 489 Mass. at 499. In so holding, the Court considered the statutory requirements of G.L. c. 119, § 58 and Mass. R. Crim. P. 10(a) (1), as well as the overriding purpose of the juvenile justice system—rehabilitation. Id. at 502.

More recently, the Appeals Court provided specific guidance on how judges should determine whether continued commitment is necessary to ensure rehabilitation of juveniles in the first category.  In Commonwealth v. Steve S., 103 Mass. App. Ct. 691 (2024), the Appeals Court applied the Noah N. framework to a case with a similarly situated juvenile that was pending on direct appeal when Noah N. was decided. In Steve S., the Court provided further guidance as to how the Commonwealth may meet its burden to prove by clear and convincing evidence that continued commitment is necessary to ensure rehabilitation of the juvenile.  Despite not having the benefit of the Noah N. decision, the Juvenile Court judge satisfied the requirements of Noah N. by holding an evidentiary hearing and making detailed findings as to whether a continuance past the juvenile’s eighteenth birthday was necessary to ensure his rehabilitation. Steve S., 103 Mass. App. Ct. at 699-700. Significantly, although Noah N. placed the burden on the Commonwealth, it did not prohibit the Commonwealth from meeting its burden by using trial evidence.  Id. at 699. Moreover, Noah N. did not require the Commonwealth to introduce any such evidence twice. Id. Where the Commonwealth’s motion to continue was filed after a bench trial, the Appeals Court concluded that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to meet the Commonwealth’s burden. Id. Accordingly, the Commonwealth met its burden without presenting any evidence at the hearing. Id. Had the Commonwealth’s motion been filed pretrial or in anticipation of a plea, as in Noah N., the Commonwealth would need to present sufficient evidence at the hearing to satisfy its burden.

The Appeals Court also concluded that the Commonwealth met the “clear and convincing” standard required by Noah N. even though the Juvenile Court judge did not articulate what standard was applied when assessing the juvenile’s need for rehabilitation.  Id. at 700.  “[T]he standard was easily met” where the juvenile did not contend that any of the judge’s findings made in connection with the motion were erroneous, nor did he challenge the subsidiary findings underlying his adjudication of delinquency. Id. Despite not having the benefit of the Noah N. decision, the Appeals Court concluded that “the central purpose, thrust, and procedural safeguards of Noah N. were clearly satisfied” in Steve S. Id. at 698.

In Steve S., the juvenile also argued that Noah N. is in tension with Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000), which holds that “[o]ther than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” The juvenile contended that the Noah N. framework improperly permits a judge to extend a commitment period based on a need for rehabilitation when such a determination should be made only by a jury.  The Appeals Court did not address the merits of this argument, recognizing that it has “no power to alter, overrule or decline to follow the holding of cases the Supreme Judicial Court has decided.” Steve S., 103 Mass. App. Ct. at 701, quoting Commonwealth v. Dube, 59 Mass. App. Ct. 476, 485 (2003). The Supreme Judicial Court denied further appellate review.

Unlike the juveniles in Noah N. and Steve S., the third category of juveniles, those charged with murder, are the exception to the rule because of the seriousness of the crime.  The legislature has expressed a clear intent through the provisions of G. L. c. 119, that juveniles charged with murder are to be treated as adults and thus “are not entitled to the benefit of [the] juvenile justice system.” Commonwealth v. Soto, 476 Mass. 436, 439 (2017). The legislature’s intent to treat such individuals as adults is grounded in public safety policy. See Nicholas-Taylor v. Commonwealth, 490 Mass., 552 at 557 (2022).  Accordingly, G.L. c. 119, § 68, requires that a juvenile offender charged with murder and held pending trial be committed to the custody of the sheriff, rather than DYS.

In Nicholas-Taylor, the Supreme Judicial Court considered the pretrial custody status of juveniles charged with murder and concluded that judges have no discretion to allow such persons the benefits of the juvenile justice system. Id., 490 Mass. at 553. There, the juvenile was charged with murder and armed assault with intent to rob. The juvenile argued that the judge had discretion to craft a bail order releasing the juvenile on personal recognizance on the murder charge and ordering the defendant held without bail on the nonmurder charge so that he could continue to be held in DYS custody after his eighteenth birthday. Id.  at 552-553. The Court concluded that while the judge has discretion to release the juvenile defendant on bail or even personal recognizance, if the juvenile is not released, he must be committed to the custody of the sheriff because of the murder charge. Id. at 557. There is no justification for treating juveniles who have been charged with murder and a nonmurder offense properly joined different than juveniles charged solely with murder. Id.

These recent decisions reflect the Supreme Judicial Court’s continuing desire to support “the correction and redemption to society of delinquent children.” Commonwealth v. Humberto H. 466 Mass. 562 (2013).  Where the juvenile is charged with murder, however, the law remains clear: he or she is less deserving of “aid, encouragement and guidance” and therefore not entitled to the benefits of the juvenile justice system. See G.L. c. 119, § 53.

Brooke Hartley is an Assistant District Attorney in the Appeals Unit at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. Upon graduating from Boston College Law School in 2018, she was a law clerk at the Massachusetts Appeals Court, followed by the Supreme Judicial Court. Ms. Hartley argued Commonwealth v. Noah N. before the Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of the Commonwealth. This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author and not necessarily those of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.