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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Ends Practice of Juvenile Courts Granting Continuances for Sole Purpose of Extending Delinquent’s Period of Detention

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ended the practice of judges presiding over juvenile delinquency proceedings and granting continuances for the sole purpose of extending the delinquent’s period of incarceration.

A juvenile identified as “Noah N.” was 17-years-of-age when he allegedly punched and bit a family or household member in violation of G.L. c. 265, § 13M(a). On August 4, 2021, in Juvenile Court, Noah N. filed a tender of plea or admission and waiver of rights form and a written request for a hearing. On August 11, 2021, the Commonwealth requested a continuance for the express purpose of delaying the case’s disposition until after Noah N.’s birthday, which was in September, at which time he would be 18. Over Noah N.’s objection, the Juvenile Court judge granted the motion, and Noah N. petitioned the Supreme Judicial Court. (As explained in the opinion, Noah N. would have been released on his 18th birthday, but the continuance would keep him confined until he was 19 — and perhaps even until he was 20 years old if further continuance was granted.)

The Court observed that when “interpreting the juvenile justice statutes and rules of procedure, [the Supreme Judicial Court] ha[s] also long recognized that rehabilitation, not punishment, is the overriding purpose of the juvenile justice system.” Commonwealth v. Ulani U., 166 N.E.3d 430 203 (Mass. 2021). “Children brought before the court are to ‘be treated, not as criminals, but as children in need of aid, encouragement and guidance.’” G.L. c. 119, § 53. Where judicial discretion is exercised in service of the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system, the Supreme Judicial Court has been particularly receptive. See Commonwealth v. Humberto H., 998 N.E.2d 1003 (Mass. 2013).

G.L. c. 119, § 58 states in pertinent part: “If a child is adjudicated a delinquent child on a complaint, the court … may commit him to the custody of the department of youth services, but the … commitment period shall not be for a period longer than until such child attains the age of eighteen, or nineteen in the case of a child whose case is disposed of after he has attained his eighteenth birthday or age [twenty] in the case of a child whose case is disposed of after he has attained his nineteenth birthday.”

The Court stated: “By its express terms, the statute reflects the Legislature’s intention that commitment of a juvenile to the custody of DYS will end when the juvenile attains the age of eighteen. The exception is when the delinquency proceeding is not disposed of until after the juvenile’s eighteenth birthday. In these circumstances, apparently recognizing the requirements of an orderly judicial process and the possibility of the need for continuing commitment and rehabilitation, the Legislature allowed commitment, and thus rehabilitation, to continue until the juvenile’s nineteenth birthday.”

However, the statute does not expressly address continuances. But allowing continuances for the sole purpose of extending the commitment period intrudes on the Legislature’s authority to set limits on the time of commitment, the Court explained. Ulla U. v. Commonwealth, 149 N.E.3d 713 (Mass. 2020).

The Court further explained: “The rules of criminal procedure permit continuances ‘only when based upon cause and only when necessary to  ensure that the interests of justice are served.’” Mass. R. Crim. P. 10 (a). In juvenile cases, the “interests of justice” focuses on rehabilitation instead of punishment. And “cause” may be delaying the juvenile’s release date beyond his eighteenth birthday due to the need for additional treatment, according to the Court.

To accomplish those objectives, the Court observed: “Where a request for a continuance has nothing to do with the orderly disposition of the case, but rather is directed at the timing of the juvenile’s impending eighteenth birthday, and at extending the time of commitment beyond that ordinarily authorized by statute, the ample discretion allowed Juvenile Court judges is tightly constrained. A continuance may only be allowed in such circumstances if it is necessary to ensure the rehabilitation of the juvenile and express findings are made to that effect.” Jake J. v. Commonwealth, 740 N.E.2d 188 (Mass. 2000).

In the instant case, the Court determined that the judge failed to make any express findings that Noah N.’s period of commitment needed to be extended beyond age 18 to ensure his rehabilitation.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the order allowing the motion for continuance. See: Noah N. v. Commonwealth, 184 N.E.3d 784 (Mass. 2022). 

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