DYS - Juvenile Justice Legal Issues

The Department of Youth Services under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services is charged with the detention, custody, diagnosis, care, and training of delinquent juvenile offenders.

Juvenile Delinquency

A mission of the Department of Youth Services (DYS) is to provide a comprehensive and coordinated program of delinquency prevention and services to delinquent children and youth referred or committed to the Department by the courts. These services are designed to advance public safety and prevent crime by promoting the acquisition of pro-social skills and providing positive opportunities for juvenile offenders

To carry out its duties under this chapter, the Department of Youth Services is authorized by General Law c. 120, §2 to employ medical, dental, psychiatric, psychological, social work, legal, investigative and other expert personnel.

The Juvenile Delinquency Code can be found in §§ 52-84 of Chapter 119 of the General Laws.

  • Chapter 120 of the General Laws incorporates the Department and guides in treating and rehabilitating juveniles once committed.
  • In addition, Chapter 18A of the General Laws establishes the Department of Youth Services as an agency within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.


The juvenile delinquency code and juvenile courts were enacted in Massachusetts in 1906. Prior to this code no comprehensive law existed but only piece-meal legislation regarding juveniles. Children charged with crimes were treated the same as any other defendant, unless under age seven.

The initial theory of the juvenile courts was to treat juvenile offenders as children needing direction and guidance rather than as criminals, under the parens patriae doctrine. Massachusetts has moved away from the parens patriae doctrine with the enactment of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1996. Generally the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1996 moved to criminalize serious juvenile delinquency. The current system establishes that delinquency is a mixed system, with elements of punishment and elements of rehabilitation.

Current System

The most recent substantial change to the juvenile delinquency code took place in 1996 with the enactment of the "Youthful Offender" statute. Such legislation created a new category for juveniles when they commit a crime. It provides that all juveniles aged 14 and older charged with murder are automatically treated as adults. It further established the new category of "youthful offender" allowing those juveniles aged 14 or older accused of serious offenses, to be charged as youthful offenders at the prosecutor's discretion and subjected to a juvenile, adult, or combination sentence.

The current system defines the offender and type of sentence juveniles may receive.

  • is between 7 and 17 years old who has committed a felony, a misdemeanor, or violated a city ordinance or town by-law.
    • An indeterminate" sentence is a commitment of a juvenile delinquent to DYS custody until age 18. Judges have no discretion to impose a different sentence length if they are imposing a commitment here. DYS custody until 18 is the only option.
  • A Youthful Offender - is a youth between 14 and 17 years of age who has committed a felony offense AND has at least one of the following:
    • Previous DYS commitment
    • Committed a certain firearms offense
    • Committed an offense which involves the infliction or threat of serious bodily harm

A youthful offender can receive a commitment to DYS until age 21, a combination DYS commitment and adult sentence or an adult sentence.

Other Juvenile Statutory Requirements

Sex Offender Registry

Certain juveniles are required to register with the Sex Offender Registry. The Sex Offender Registry requires that those defined by the statute as sex offenders register with a Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB) and be classified on a three level system, with Level 1 being the least dangerous and Level 3 being the most dangerous. Depending on the classification level, members of the community would have more or less access to information about the sex offender.

Civil Commitment and Community Parole Supervision for Life for Sex Offenders

The Sexually Dangerous Persons Act, dormant since 1990, was revived and substantially amended in 1999. Historically under the Act, those persons who had a chronic and severe history of sexual offending could be committed to the State Hospital at Bridgewater as chronic sex offenders. These commitments were "from one day to life," and offenders could be released once they had been rehabilitated. The law was phased out in 1990, prohibiting the commitment of new offenders to Bridgewater, but retaining the population that was already there. As revised in 1999, the law provides that sexually dangerous persons may be civilly committed to Bridgewater after having completed their sentence of incarceration; the previous version of the act had the civil commitment and the incarceration run simultaneously. The other significant change was a change to the definition of "sexually dangerous person" that focuses on the inability to control sexual impulses as opposed to whether or not the person has a mental deficiency.

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