Yesterday, the State Senate passed a bill that would reform several different aspects of the juvenile justice system, with the goal of reducing children’s interactions with the court system, making those interactions more humane, and enabling them to move on from youthful mistakes and become productive adult members of society. The bill, S. 2417, would have to be passed by the State House in the next few weeks and get the Governor’s approval to become law, but it includes a number of welcome reforms.
One of the most consequential changes, which commentators have called for repeatedly, is to allow records of juvenile crimes to be expunged. Current law in Massachusetts permits some criminal records, including juvenile records, to be sealed after a waiting period of several years, meaning that the public and most employers would not be able to access those records. However, law enforcement, courts, and schools can still access sealed records for certain purposes. What is currently nearly nonexistent under Massachusetts law, in contrast, is expungement – total deletion of a record so that nobody would ever know that it existed, not employers, not law enforcement, and not the courts. Many states automatically expunge juvenile court records once an individual reaches a certain age, so that bad decisions during adolescence do not follow children into adulthood and prevent them from being admitted to schools or getting jobs. These states recognize that it is counterproductive to maintain the stigma of a criminal record on individuals who have learned from their mistakes and are trying to get back on the right track. People who try and fail to make a living by legitimate means may resort to illegal conduct to make ends meet.
The reform bill would not go as far as to expunge the records automatically, but it would open a simple path to expungement. The Commissioner of Probation would issue a form that an individual with a juvenile record (including individuals under 18 tried as adults) could file in any court where he or she had cases as long as he or she had completed the sentences or probation for the charges against him or her, and as long as he or she had not been convicted of any new crimes before the juvenile sentence was complete. For misdemeanor charges, the court would be required to expunge the records; for felonies, a judge would have discretion to grant expungement. The law does not provide specific factors to guide the judge’s discretion, but presumably some of the factors articulated by the Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Peter Pon in 2014 would be instructive. Interestingly, it appears that the possibility of expungement may be retroactive, allowing adults to clear out juvenile records from before the law passed. That would be an important step to allow young adults to start moving forward from their past right away.
Other reforms in the bill include sharply restricting shackling of juvenile defendants except when safety concerns clearly require it and establishing a limited parent-child privilege so that parents could assist their children through the court system in some circumstances. The bill would establish a presumption that children’s limited capacities due to their youth were mitigating factors in any criminal case and require a court to consider youth where issues of intent, premeditation, or self-defense were in play. The bill also would raise the minimum age for criminal charges in Juvenile Court from 7 to 11, so that grade-schoolers who misbehave are handled through other forums or processes rather than being treated as criminals. All of these measures would contribute to a more humane juvenile justice system where children accused of crimes would be treated more fairly and given greater opportunities to move on from their mistakes when they reach adulthood.