Immunity for juveniles
A 1996 law aimed at cracking down on serious juvenile lawbreakers has developed a crack of its own.
The state Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that juvenile court judges do not have authority to grant immunity from prosecution to witnesses against juvenile defendants under the Youthful Offender Act. That statute makes juveniles age 14 and older subject to stiff sanctions, including adult jail sentences, for conviction of a wide range of serious crimes (“Outgrowing Juvenile Justice,” CW, Winter ’01). But the high court says a later statute that, ironically, broadened judicial authority to grant immunity does not apply to Juvenile Court, so witnesses in these cases cannot be shielded from prosecution in order to obtain their testimony. Such immunity would be available if a juvenile were tried as an adult, but the youthful offender law did away with the possible transfer of such cases to adult court, except for murder.
The ruling stems from a 1999 case against a 15-year-old Woburn youth, Charles Stankiewicz, who was arrested in Braintree on charges that included possession of a firearm and breaking and entering. Norfolk County prosecutors sought immunity for a second juvenile who was prepared to testify against Stankiewicz, but the juvenile court judge hearing the case ruled such powers are restricted to Superior Court proceedings. Prosecutors appealed, but in a 4-2 decision in March, the state’s highest court upheld the judge’s decision.
Keating plans to ask the Legislature to amend the immunity statute to include juvenile court judges, and he doesn’t foresee any opposition. Indeed, even one of the SJC justices voting to uphold the lower court ruling made it clear that in doing so he was hewing to the letter, rather than the spirit, of the statute. “Accordingly,” wrote Justice Roderick L. Ireland, “I urge and invite the Legislature to address this obvious oversight immediately.”