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Offenders Essay, Research Paper

THESIS STATEMENT: The Great and General Court of Massachusetts has erred

in reforming the juvenile justice system by implementing policies and

procedures that will harm juveniles and place society at risk.

On July 23, 1995, an intruder brutally attacked and stabbed Janet

Downing approximately 100 times in her Somerville home. The revolting

Downing murder and ensuing arrest of Edward O’Brien Jr., a 15-year-old

juvenile whom prosecutors say committed the heinous crime, sent

shockwaves through the state. When Somerville District Court Judge Paul

P. Hefferman ruled that the Commonwealth try Mr. O’Brien as a juvenile,

those shockwaves grew in intensity, and the citizens of Massachusetts,

fed up with increasing youth violence and perceptions of an ineffective

juvenile justice system, demanded the enactment of tough new laws to

deal with repeat and violent juvenile offenders. The Great and General

Court of Massachusetts headed these demands for reform of the juvenile

justice system and enacted legislation that, among other things,

abolishes the trial de novo system in the juvenile courts, requires the

trial of juveniles charged with murder, manslaughter, aggravated rape,

forcible rape of a child, kidnaping, assault with intent to rob or

murder and armed burglary in adult court and permits prosecutors to open

to the public juvenile proceedings when they seek an adult sentence.

Although proponents tout these measures as a sagacious solution for the

vexatious problem of juvenile delinquency, abolishing the trial de novo

system, providing for automatic adult trials and opening juvenile

proceedings to the public when prosecutors seek an adult sentence works

to the detriment, not the benefit, of juveniles and society. Therefore,

the policy makers of Massachusetts should repeal most sections of the

Juvenile Justice Reform Act and develop other policies to deal with the

rising problem of juvenile crime.

I. A SINGLE TRIAL SYSTEM PREVENTS COURTS FROM PROVIDING RAPID ASSISTANCE

TO JUVENILES IN NEED, DOES LITTLE TO SERVE JUDICIAL ECONOMY AND PLACES A

SIMILAR BURDEN AS THE DE NOVO SYSTEM ON VICTIMS AND WITNESSES.

Proponents of a single trial system for juveniles argue that the trial

de novo system wastes judicial resources by giving defendants a second

bite at the apple and traumatizes victims and witnesses by forcing them

to testify at two proceedings. However, these proponents fail to

acknowledge that the de novo system allows judges to quickly provide

juveniles with the rehabilitative help they need. The proponents,

unsurprisingly, also fail to acknowledge that a single trial system may

place a greater burden on judicial resources and a similar burden on

victims and witnesses.

The de novo system benefits juveniles by encouraging bench trials,

which frequently result in the swift administration of rehabilitative

help. For many juveniles, delinquency is a reaction to a variety of

situational stressors. Statistics indicate that the vast majority of

juvenile delinquents are exposed to abuse and neglect, harsh or erratic

parenting, and socioeconomic deprivation. Experts believe that if the

juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate juveniles and make them

productive members of our society, it must address these problems as

swiftly as possible. A de novo system encourages juveniles, many of

whom want judicial help, to request a bench trial. Likewise, under a de

novo system, defense attorneys are encouraged to recommend an initial

bench trial because the court’s decision does not bind clients if it is

not in their interest. On the other hand, a single trial system

discourages juveniles and defense attorneys from requesting a bench

trial. Because jury trials are more lengthy than bench trials and may

drag out for over a year, the current policy of encouraging juveniles to

seek an initial jury trial denies them the rehabilitative help they need

for a significant period of time. Therefore, the de novo system is the

preferred choice when dealing with juveniles because it encourages bench

trials and, concomitantly, the swift administration of rehabilitative

help.

As noted earlier, one of the primary arguments for doing away with the

de novo system is that it wastes judicial resources. However, upon

closer examination one realizes that the de novo system actually

furthers judicial economy. Under a de novo system, procedural

safeguards can be done away with or relaxed at bench trials without fear

of violating rights of defendants. Courts have found the elimination of

procedural safeguards at bench trials in a de novo system to be

constitutional because the judiciary will extend all safeguards to the

defendant at a new jury trial if he/she so chooses. Although no

statistics could be found which indicate the number of defendants

appealing de novo bench trial decision, a court employee estimates that

it was around 3%. Thus, 97% of juvenile cases were disposed of through

bench trials, which are less costly and time consuming than jury

trials. While 3% of the cases resulted in two proceedings, the value

obtained from bench trials appears to significantly outweigh the costs

incurred by appeals. Therefore, the de novo system may actually further

judicial economy more than a single trial system.

The other primary argument for a single trial system is that making

victims and witnesses testify at two trials is unfair. The 3% estimate

that the de novo system requires that victims and witnesses testify at

two trials very infrequently. Furthermore, replacing the de novo system

will not eliminate the need for requiring some victims and witnesses to

testify at two trials. Appellate courts have the power to reverse a

trial court’s decision and order a new trial. In cases where the trial

court’s decision is reversed, victims and witnesses must testify again.

Given the strong state interest in reforming juveniles, protecting

society and conserving judicial resources and the fact that a one trial

system also requires some victims and witnesses to testify twice, the

burden placed on witnesses and victims by the de novo system cannot be

considered unreasonable.

In sum, the de novo trial system better suits the needs of juvenile

offenders, society and the court system for several reasons. First,

under the de novo system, judges can expeditiously provide the

rehabilitative help that juveniles need. Secondly, the de novo system

does not appear to burden judicial economy. In fact, despite

proponents’ claims to the contrary, the evidence appears to indicate

that a de novo system actually furthers judicial economy. Finally,

although a slight burden is placed on those victims and witnesses who

are forced to testify at two proceeding, this burden exists in a one

trial system and is outweighed by the strong state interest in

rehabilitating juveniles, protecting society and conserving judicial

resources.

II. AUTOMATICALLY TRYING JUVENILES CHARGED WITH MURDER, MANSLAUGHTER,

AGGRAVATED RAPE, FORCIBLE RAPE OF A CHILD, ASSAULT WITH INTENT TO ROB OR

MURDER AND ARMED ROBBERY CONTRADICTS THE NOTIONS UPON WHICH THE

JUVENILE

JUSTICE SYSTEM WAS FOUNDED AND, ULTIMATELY, PLACES SOCIETY AT RISK.

Besides eliminating the de novo system, the Juvenile Justice Reform Act

also provides for the automatic trial of juveniles charged with murder,

manslaughter, aggravated rape of a child, assault with intent to rob or

murder and armed robbery in adult court. The automatic trial provision

is unnecessary in light of new procedures that provide for a post-trial

amenability to rehabilitation determination. Moreover, automatically

treating certain juveniles as adults goes against the traditional

purposes of the juvenile system, and, ultimately, poses a greater risk

to society when correctional authorities release the offender.

The provision providing for automatic trial in adult court of juveniles

charged with murder, manslaughter, aggravated rape of a child, assault

with intent to rob or murder and armed robbery in adult court is

unwarranted in light of additional provisions contained within the

Juvenile Justice Reform Act that eliminate pretrial transfer hearings

and replace them with post-trial amenability to rehabilitation

hearings. Scott Harshbarger, the Attorney General of Massachusetts and

author of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, states that the automatic

transfer provision is necessary to address the “the time-consuming and

burdensome nature of the transfer hearing process.” In other words, Mr.

Harshbarger advocates treating juveniles as adults in certain cases

because it is too much of a bother to conduct a pretrial hearing to

determine whether the juvenile is amenable to rehabilitation. Mr.

Harshbarger’s position is especially confusing in light of the provision

in the Juvenile Justice Reform Act that supplants pretrial transfer

hearings with post-trial amenability to rehabilitation hearings. Under

the new system, the legislature has eliminated pretrial transfer

hearings in juvenile court and mandated that the court hold trials

first. If the juvenile is found guilty at the trial, the court holds a

post trial amenability hearing in conjunction with the sentencing

heating. Once the court makes a determination as to whether the

juvenile is amenable to rehabilitation, the judge can impose three

possible sentences: (1) an adult sentence; (2) a juvenile sentence; or

(3) commit the juvenile to the Department of Youth Services until he/she

reaches the age of twenty-one. As the legislature has eliminated the

burdensome nature of the transfer process, Mr. Harshbarger’s rationale

for the automatic trial provision makes no sense. Moreover, the adult

trial provision effectively denies juveniles charged with certain crimes

rehabilitation opportunities and defies common sense by transferring

juveniles out of the juvenile system where an adult sentence may be

imposed by a judge who is familiar with the needs of juveniles to the

adult criminal system where judges are not familiar with the needs of

juveniles.

In addition to being unnecessary in light of the elimination of

transfer hearings in the juvenile justice system, the automatic trial

provision contradicts the traditional philosophy of the juvenile justice

system. The fundamental principle upon 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. 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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