Juvenile Delinquency vs. Indictment as a Youthful Offender in Massachusetts
A child will be charged as a juvenile in Massachusetts when the date they are accused of committing any crime is before the 17th birthday of the child in question. When a child is charged as a juvenile in Massachusetts the case is referred to as a delinquency case. Any charge can proceed through the juvenile court as a delinquency with the exception of murder charges. Murder charges are the exclusive jurisdiction of the Superior Court regardless of the age of the accused. In certain circumstances where prosecutors feel that a child has committed a serious offense instead of a delinquency they can choose to proceed against the child by way of indictment as a youthful offender. The decision of whether to proceed against a child through a delinquency or as a youthful offender is within the sole discretion of the District Attorney's office. The laws governing indictment of a child as a youthful offender can be found in Chapter 119 section 54 of the Massachusetts General Laws. A person can be indicted as a youthful offender if they were age 14, 15, or 16 at the time of offense, and one of the three following circumstances applies:
- The offense charged is one that would be punishable by state prison if the accused were an adult and the accused was previously committed to the Department of Youth Services.
- The offense involves serous bodily harm, or the threat of serious bodily harm.
- The offense charged is a violation of Chapter 269 section 10 paragraph (a), (c) or (d) or subsection 10E
The overwhelming majority of youthful offender cases brought by prosecutors come under the second prong mentioned above. The first prong is limited to children who have been previously convicted of crimes that upon final disposition resulted in a commitment to the Department of Youth Services. The third prong is limited to certain firearms offenses that are outlined in the specific statutes referenced. Because the phrase "the threat of serious bodily harm" in prong 2 is more open to interpretation many more children can be indicted as youthful offenders under this prong.
If a child is indicted as a youthful offender there will be two major differences in that child's case as opposed to how it would be treated if it had only been charged as a delinquency.
All delinquency cases are closed to the public meaning no one is allowed to be in the courtroom other than the parties involved and the child charged. Likewise no information can be released from the court file regarding the child charged. The same is not true of a youthful offender. If a child is charged as a youthful offender there is no rule of confidentiality and the court's file will be open to any member of the public who would like to look at it (with the exception of any documents specifically impounded by the court). Also the courtroom is open to the public, including the media.
When a child is charged with a delinquency case the maximum penalty is for every offense is commitment to the Department of Youth Services until the age of 18 (and in some limited circumstances to age 19). This holds true even if the child is charged with a serious violent crime. As long as the matter remains a delinquency the maximum penalty will be a commitment to the Department of Youth Services. When a child is committed to the Department of Youth Services it is extremely rare for them to serve the entire commitment in a locked facility. Most children serve a shorter period of time in a locked facility and are released back to their homes on conditions of liberty until age 18. Although one child who has committed a crime only faces a delinquency charge another child who commits the exact same crime can be indicted as a youthful offender. If a child is indicted as a youthful offender the court has the ability to sentence them to the maximum penalty allowed by law for an adult accused of committing the same crime. For example a 14 year old who is indicted as a youthful offender for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon can be sentenced to up to 10 years in state prison. The judge is not required to give an adult sentence and can choose to only sentence the child to probation or commitment to the Department of Youth Services. The judge could also choose to give a combination sentence involving commitment to the Department of Youth Services along with adult probation with state prison time hanging in the balance if any violation of probation occurs.