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Juvenile Criminal Charges in Massachusetts FAQs

A phone call in the middle of the night when our children are out with friends will set any parent’s heart racing. Few things can cause the wave of concern that comes when the call is a police officer or our child letting us know they were arrested.

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation. The United States Department of Justice reports that there were over 424,000 juvenile arrests in 2020 alone. The vast majority of these alleged crimes were for nonviolent offenses like theft, vandalism, drug abuse, property crimes, and disorderly conduct. It is also important to point out that the data is from the beginning of the pandemic. The numbers may likely be lower due to stay at home orders reducing the risk that kids were out and about as they normally are.

Whether dealing with allegations of theft or something more serious, like sexual assault, parents are wise to take a moment to gather information about the process and start to put a plan in place to help protect their child’s future.

What happens when police arrest my child?

Massachusetts law requires authorities immediately notify parents of the arrest of a juvenile. The commonwealth generally does not allow police to hold a juvenile in custody for longer than six hours. The also does not allow police to question the juvenile without a parent present and states that if using detention, police must not put the child where they can see or hear other adults and that police should only hold a juvenile for long enough to complete identification and booking. Once complete, the police should release the child to their parents, transport them to juvenile court, or transport them to an Overnight Arrest Program.

Before allowing the release, the police will likely require the parent sign off on a promise to bring the juvenile to court.

Although this is how the process generally unfolds in these situations, there are various factors that can change the situation. One example is the presence of a warrant. If the police have a warrant for the arrest of the child, the authorities may require bail before allowing release of the juvenile.

Are the charges different for children compared to adults?

The commonwealth generally charges anyone under the age of eighteen as either a delinquent or youthful offender. The process for delinquency charges are private, the court does not share the details of the offense and the child’s role with the public. Delinquent offenses are generally those which, if committed by an adult, would result in allegations of criminal activity. This can include drug offenses and vandalism.

Youthful offender charges are more serious. They can apply to those age fourteen to eighteen accused of committing a felony when the child was previously committed to the department of youth services, committed an offense that involves actual or the threat of serious bodily harm, or violated firearm statutes. Youthful offender charges are open to the public and can result in more serious penalties.

What else should I know about this area of law?

Parents are also wise to prepare for potential school repercussions. These can include a suspension or expulsion if a child is charged with a felony.

It is also important to note that like most areas of law, the laws that guide the juvenile justice system in Massachusetts are evolving. At this time, lawmakers are considering extending the term juvenile to include those up to the age of 20. Medical professionals behind the proposal explain that our frontal lobe does not finish development until we are into our twenties. This is important for this discussion as this is the portion of the brain that helps analyze right from wrong and potential consequences for our actions. Proponents of extending the definition of a juvenile argue that a larger range is more appropriate given what we now know about brain development. Instead of sending these kids to jail or prison with other criminals, they argue it is more advantageous to use the juvenile reformation system.

This is just one of many changes to take note of when we help our children navigate allegations of wrongdoing. There are also alternatives to consider when it comes to sentencing that can include community service. The particulars vary depending on the county. An attorney experienced in juvenile justice can review the allegations and discuss these and other options, working to better ensure your child’s rights are protected throughout the process.


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