Lawmakers eye expanding juvenile diversion to some violent offenses

Advocates say racial disparities start at criminal justice system’s front door

IN JANUARY, nearly four years after the idea was first conceived, the state launched its first state-run, state-funded juvenile diversion programs. The idea was to keep teenagers out of detention and avoid saddling them with a juvenile court record for minor offenses, like shoplifting or using illicit drugs.

Now, lawmakers are considering expanding the diversion program.

Both the House and Senate have put money in their fiscal 2023 budget plans to offer diversion in more locations. And on Wednesday, the Senate plans to take up a bill sponsored by Sen. Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat, which would let the juvenile court divert a young person out of the court system for a wider range of offenses, including some violent offenses.

The diversion process was established through the 2018 criminal justice reform law to prevent teens from having juvenile records created. According to data compiled by the Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board, it has largely succeeded, approximately cutting in half the number of teens sent through the criminal justice system. The decline is driven in large part by fewer prosecutions for alcohol and disorderly conduct charges. Today, however, there are a very limited number of offenses for which a teenager can be sent to community supervision and services.

Creem’s bill would expand that to cover more serious offenses. These include certain motor vehicle offenses, certain instances of assault and battery on a public official, first-time assault and battery on a family or household member, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon when there is no serious injury.

The Massachusetts Coalition for Juvenile Justice Reform, a project of the advocacy group Citizens for Juvenile Justice, which supports the bill, says in a fact sheet that this would let a judge hold a hearing to better distinguish between childish behavior and serious offending, and send a child guilty of the former to a diversion program.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s criminal justice reform caucus, said the next step in reducing mass incarceration is looking at how the state addresses violent crimes – and that’s the path the Legislature is starting to go down. He said he urges colleagues not to consider worst-case scenarios, but to think about an example like a juvenile in difficult family circumstances who hits a family member for the first time. 

“Just putting young people into the court system automatically more often than not creates this path that’s very hard to get out of,” Eldridge said in a virtual briefing Tuesday organized by the caucus with the Office of the Child Advocate.

In its fact sheet, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice Reform gives the example of a foster child in crisis who was placed in an ambulance and spat at the driver when he taunted her for having a learning disability. She was charged with assault and battery on a public servant. If a teenager assaults someone with a cell phone, eggs, a sneaker, a backpack, or a water bottle, that is considered assault with a dangerous weapon.

Reform advocates portray this as a racial issue, since Black and Latino children are overrepresented at every stage of the juvenile justice system, as they are in the criminal justice system more broadly.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Melissa Threadgill, director of strategic innovation for the Office of the Child Advocate, said during the briefing that racial disparities start at the system’s front door. “If we increase the opportunity for diversion, it’s our hope that’s one way we can start to do a better job of tackling these disparities,” she said.

In addition to helping the children, Threadgill said there is a “strong public safety” argument to be made for diversion since research has shown recidivism is reduced when a teenager participates in a diversion program. “If you connect kids to services and keep them out of the court, they’re more likely not to come back,” she said.

The Senate also plans to take up a bill sponsored by Sen. Adam Gomez, a Springfield Democrat, that would make it easier for juveniles to post bail by making some procedural changes and waiving the $40 bail fee. Threadgill said many families caught up in the criminal justice system “don’t have $40 to spare.”