Courts in Massachusetts and nationwide are faced with a difficult task in prosecuting and sentencing juvenile offenders for serious crimes. Under certain circumstances, juveniles can be tried and sentenced as if they were adults, while judges also have the discretion to place the children in the custody of a youth services division, which may work to educate and rehabilitate the children before releasing them back into society as adults. The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently heard an appeal by state prosecutors, who challenged a judge’s imposition of a suspended commitment to the Department of Youth Services (DYS) for a child convicted of a firearm offense.
According to the facts discussed in the recently published appellate opinion, the child was arrested and charged with the possession of an unregistered firearm after police noticed the gun in his car after a traffic stop. After his arrest, the youth was committed to a DYS juvenile detention facility pending his trial. The juvenile entered into a plea agreement after 8 months in DYS custody. At sentencing, the judge found that the youth had done “very well” during the eight months he spent in DYS custody and that he had a supportive home environment, and that no further incarceration would be necessary. The judge sentenced him to a three-year term in DYS custody but suspended the incarceration pending the youth’s participation and completion of a probation program. As a result of his sentence, the youth would be permitted to return home and live with his family while he fulfilled the probation conditions.
The Commonwealth appealed the judge’s sentence to the state Court of Appeals, arguing that state law gave the judge no authority to issue such a lenient sentence. Specifically, the state argued that a commitment to DYS custody after sentencing could not be suspended under the conditions present in the case. The Massachusetts Supreme Court took jurisdiction of the case. The high court disagreed with the prosecutors, ruling that it is well within the discretion of a sentencing judge to issue a commitment to DYS but to hold that commitment pending the completion of probation. As a result of the high court ruling, the youth will be permitted to return to his family and remain free as long as he follows the probation conditions implemented by the judge.