The Juvenile Court has jurisdiction over delinquency matters, youthful offenders, children in need of services (CHINS), care and protection proceedings, and adult criminal complaints of contributing to the delinquency of minors. With the exception of youthful offender cases, juvenile court proceedings are closed to the general public.
A person between the ages of seven and seventeen charged with a criminal offense is considered a juvenile. He or she will be prosecuted in one of the five juvenile courts for the Cape & Islands District (Martha's Vineyard, Falmouth, Barnstable, Orleans and Nantucket). An individual who is seventeen or older is considered an adult. Criminal matters for adults are handled in District Court or Superior Court.
A juvenile may be prosecuted as a Youthful Offender which allows the judge to sentence the individual as a juvenile or as an adult. A person can be considered a Youthful Offender if he or she committed the offense between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. Also the offense must be considered a felony, a crime that would be punishable by imprisonment in state prison if committed by an adult, and the juvenile must have:
(a) been previously committed to the department of youth services, or
(b) committed an offense that involves the infliction or threat of serious bodily harm, or
(c) violated certain firearm statutes.
In order for a juvenile case to be prosecuted as a Youthful Offender, the case must be presented to a Grand Jury for indictment. A Grand Jury is a twenty-three person panel that listens to evidence presented by the prosecutor and decides whether there is sufficient evidence to issue the indictment. Once an indictment is returned, the case proceeds in Juvenile Court. Youthful Offender cases are open to the public. The judge has a wider range of sentencing options such as DYS (Department of Youth Services) commitment until the youth's twenty-first birthday or any sentence permitted by law in the adult court.
Initiating the Case
Cases begin in the Juvenile Court with the issuance of a criminal complaint or an arrest by the police. A complaint is a sworn statement by a police officer or a private citizen that states the law which has been violated and the facts that support the allegation. Police complaints and private citizen complaints are issued by a clerk magistrate in the Juvenile Court after he determines that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the juvenile committed the crime.
A juvenile is either summonsed into court or brought in under arrest by a police department or DYS (Department of Youth Services). An arraignment is the formal proceeding in which the juvenile is charged with a crime.
At the Juvenile Court, the juvenile and his family are met by a probation officer to determine whether the juvenile qualifies for a court-appointed lawyer. The probation department also gathers background information on the juvenile such as criminal history, DSS (Department of Social Services) involvement, and any other family issues which are relevant to the proceeding.
Once the juvenile is arraigned, the District Attorney can request that the juvenile be held on bail. The purpose of bail is to assure the juvenile's appearance on the next court date. If bail is set, the juvenile has a right to a bail review hearing in the Superior Court.
An arraignment is followed by one or more pre-trial hearings. The prosecutor and defense counsel meet to exchange information and discuss whether the case will be resolved before trial. The exchange of information is governed by rules of criminal procedure under a process called "discovery." Once discovery is complete, the prosecutor or defense counsel may file motions with the court to address unresolved issues about pieces of evidence or issues of law. Some examples are: motions to suppress evidence or statements by the juvenile and motions to inspect evidence.
It is common for there to be a continuance between each pre-trial hearing and motion date to give the prosecutor and defense counsel an opportunity to prepare for the next stage in the process.
Any time prior to trial, defense counsel and the prosecutor may decide to resolve the case. The judge plays a significant role in this process. There are various ways in which a case is resolved prior to trial:
Dismissal- A case may be dismissed prior to trial for many reasons. A prosecutor may decide to dismiss a case after he or she determines there is not sufficient evidence to present to a jury. For example, the judge may have excluded evidence after a motion to suppress or a witness may be unavailable or uncooperative. Defense counsel may also file a motion to dismiss on legal grounds.
Pre-trial probation- By statute, the Juvenile Court may place a juvenile on probation prior to trial. The juvenile does not have to admit that he or she is delinquent of the offense charged. If the juvenile fulfills the term of her or his probation successfully, the court will dismiss the charges.
Continued Without a Finding- This disposition is a result of an "admission to sufficient facts" by the juvenile. The juvenile admits that there is sufficient evidence to warrant a delinquent finding. The juvenile is then put on probation for a specified period of time. After successful completion of any court-ordered probation terms, the case is dismissed. If the juvenile violates the terms of probation, he or she is brought before the court to be adjudicated a delinquent and sentenced accordingly.
Delinquent- The juvenile is adjudicated a delinquent either by admitting that he or she has committed the crime he or she is accused of or by a jury's verdict.
Once a juvenile is adjudicated delinquent, he or she can be put on probation or committed to the DYS.
A prosecutor must assess each case before recommending a disposition prior to trial. Some of the factors considered are: the strength of the Commonwealth's evidence, the impact the crime has had on a victim, the effect a trial would have on a victim, and the juvenile's past criminal history.
A juvenile may present the court with a plea known as a "defendant-capped plea." A juvenile either admits to sufficient facts or pleads delinquent to the offense and recommends through defense counsel an appropriate sentence. The court may adopt the juvenile's recommendation over the Commonwealth's objection. The Commonwealth will object where the prosecutor believes a more stringent sentence would be appropriate. If the court does not agree with the juvenile, the defense counsel has a right to withdraw the plea, and the case proceeds to trial.
All juvenile trials are closed to the public unless the juvenile is tried as a Youthful Offender. A trial can be a bench trial or a jury trial. At a bench trial, a judge hears the evidence and determines whether the Commonwealth has proven its case against the juvenile. In a jury trial, a six-person panel hears the evidence and must render a unanimous decision for "delinquent" or "not delinquent." A Youthful Offender case requires a twelve-person jury. If found delinquent, the judge sentences the juvenile. Most jury trials are tried in the Barnstable Juvenile Court.
At trial the Commonwealth is represented by an assistant district attorney and the juvenile is represented by defense counsel. The Commonwealth has the burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. This is achieved by presenting evidence through witness testimony, documentation, and physical evidence. The juvenile does not have to present any evidence.
Once a juvenile tenders a plea or is adjudicated delinquent after trial, both the prosecutor and defense counsel present their arguments for appropriate sentencing to the court. Victims have a right to be heard at this stage of the proceeding. A victim may choose to make an oral statement to the court or submit a written Victim Impact Statement. A judge may sentence a juvenile to probation or DYS commitment.
In most cases a juvenile is sentenced to probation. Once the juvenile is sentenced, he or she is referred to the probation department to be assigned a probation officer. The terms of probation can be specifically set by the judge or left to the probation department to determine what is appropriate given the juvenile's offense, history of drug/alcohol use, school performance, or family issues. Some examples of probation terms are restitution to the victim, drug/alcohol evaluation, counseling, random drug screening, school attendance, and community service.
Probation Revocation - If the juvenile does not comply with the terms of probation or commits a new crime. Probation can be revoked after a hearing in court.
The judge can extend probation to include new terms or terminate probation and commit the juvenile to DYS.
Department of Youth Services
Once a male juvenile is sentenced to a DYS commitment, he is transported to the Old Colony Brockton Facility for an assessment. Females are sent to the Northeast Family Institute at Dorchester (NFI). Both facilities are staff-secured. The assessment usually takes between 30-45 days. A DYS caseworker meets with the family and youth to determine which program would be most appropriate for the youth given the criminal history, drug/alcohol abuse, necessity for a particular type of counseling, or other family issues.
The placements vary in structure and security. For example, the Forestry Camp located in Brewster is a 27-day Outward Bound program. It is a therapeutic environment that includes education, counseling, and outdoor activities that stress self-esteem. A more secure treatment is the Goss Facility in Taunton, which is similar to an adult jail.
After successful completion of the treatment placement, the juvenile returns to the community, i.e., home, foster-care, or further placement. The DYS caseworker continues to supervise the juvenile until his or her eighteenth birthday. The level of supervision varies from 24-hour electronic monitoring to weekly one-on-one meetings with the caseworker. Terms of "conditional liberty" usually include school attendance or full-time employment, remaining drug and alcohol free, and participating in counseling.