Weekly Wonder: State juvenile court cases fall for 5th consecutive year

The decline in juvenile case filings accelerated in 2018 after the state passed reforms to the juvenile justice system. Graphic by Stella Lorence/BU News Service

By Stella Lorence
Boston University News Service

Cases filed in the state’s juvenile court system have decreased for five consecutive years, according to state data.

Although the juvenile court oversees several types of cases involving children — including those relating to adoption, guardianship and care and protection — the vast majority of filings each year are delinquency or applications for delinquency complaint.

Applications for delinquency are filed when “a police officer or other person [that] believes a youth has committed a delinquent offense,” per the state’s Office of the Child Advocate. If the court finds probable cause that the youth committed the act described in the application, a delinquency case is created and a delinquency complaint is filed.

Applications for delinquency complaints and delinquency filings both decreased by 7% between 2019 and 2020, according to the Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board’s (JPAD) annual report.

In 2020, delinquency filings and applications for delinquency complaint made up over half of all juvenile court filings. Middlesex County had the most applications for delinquency complaints with over 1300, while Essex County had the most filings with 945.

The report claims the overall downward trend, which started accelerating in 2018, can be attributed to the implementation of An Act Relative to Criminal Justice Reform. This act had the goal of reducing the number of incidents that must be processed through the juvenile justice system. 

Among other reforms, the act raised the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12, removed juvenile court jurisdiction for certain minor offenses and decriminalized some offenses for juveniles in schools. It also created new requirements for the training of school resource officers and increased opportunities for judges to “divert” youths to restorative justice programs, prior to arraignment.

JJPAD’s report on the early impacts of the reform found that the law had its intended effect. Not only have delinquency filings and applications for complaints dropped, but arrests, arraignments and parole violations have also declined. The report attributes the declines mostly to reductions in the use of the juvenile court system for low-level offenses.

However, the declining trends have not been applied evenly across all demographics. The JJPAD report notes that youth of color are still disproportionately represented at every level of the juvenile justice system and that the disparity between white youth and youth of color has, in fact, increased since the criminal justice reform act was passed.

The percentage of white defendants in delinquency cases fell 5% between 2018 and 2019, while the percentage of Hispanic defendants remained fairly steady at around 18% and the percentage of Black defendants increased by 3%, according to state data.

Data from the past year may have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, artificially deflating some of the statistics, the JJPAD report noted. For example, although courts that were closed to the general public were operating virtually for emergency matters, the report said closures might have discouraged individuals from filing for less serious issues.

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