Attorney Sam’s Take: Do Massachusetts Bullying, Shootings And Murder Cases Negate Stats On Juvenile Justice?

I really hate to throw a damper on a celebration. Recently, the Boston Globe touted the good news that Massachusetts criminal and child welfare caseloads in the state’s juvenile courts have fallen sharply over the past three year. According to these statistics, economic turmoil that has placed enormous strain on many families has failed to yield more negative results and the dramatic decline is confounding social workers, lawyers, and child and family advocates.

I am not really so counfounded.

Of course, as soon as such news comes out, the powers that be begin patting themselves on the back for a job well done. After all, when success is in the air, everyone grasps at it as if it were the beloved child of their own hard work. Failure, on the other hand, remains an orphan, spawned by “them”…whomever “they” are.

Massachusetts juvenile courts handle three major categories of cases. The most common are delinquency cases. They deal with criminal offenders under the age of 17. Juvenile judges also hear petitions involving abused or neglected children, and review cases involving youth who are in trouble at school or home or regularly running away. Apparently, since 2007,the number of such matters in juvenile court has decreased.

So I guess kids lucky enough to live in the Commonwealth have little to be afraid of, right? After all, that would be well timed given the onslaught of cases which is likely to soon deluge the courts due to Massachusetts’ new bullying law.

But I digress. We were talking about the recent past, not the near future.

Coming at a time of high unemployment, housing instability, and budget cuts to social services, the decreases of cases have defied easy explanation.

So…what has caused this drop in Massachusetts juvenile cases? Have parents and children finally gotten “their act” together? Has the court system and law enforcement finally mended its credibility as far as kids are concerned? Has a new era of “peace and love” finally arrived in the Commonwealth?

Some specialists cite a growing number of community programs that are reaching out to at-risk teenagers in hopes of steering them out of trouble before they become involved with the courts. Hospitals, schools, and local police, many believe, are said to be doing a better job of recognizing troubled teenagers and pointing them toward help.

Gee, if only it looked as “hunky dory” from a courtside view.

A View From The Trenches:

Fewer cases hitting juvenile courts does not mean that the problems have subsided. Frankly, it strikes me as a bit disingenuous for these “experts” to be suggesting one day that such issues are subsiding while, on another day, banging on the alarm bells that bullying is an almost-new phenomenon that has now reached epic proportions. Further, I may have been dreaming, but I could have sworn we have been seeing many more news stories of kids being involved in Boston shootings over the past several months.

Meanwhile, only yesterday, the Globe had a story depicting teenagers indicating several instances of their being recently slapped, hit, choked, or kicked by their romantic partners as well as these same kids being violent with their peers and siblings, according to a survey of Boston high school students. In fact, the reported study suggested that “dating violence appears to be one of many adolescent problems.”

“So, what are you saying, Sam? That the statistics are lying?”

I don’t know. I have not read the statistics. Further, mathematics and I do not tend to get along that well. I do, however, see what goes on in the courts and I do have a nose that is good at sniffing out inconsistency. It was trained during a quarter-century of experience in the justice systems of New York and Massachusetts.

There are other, though, less happy, reasons which might account for a reduction in juvenile matters, assuming there is such a reduction.

One is that many kids are not prosecuted as kids in the criminal justice system, particularly in crimes of violence. Therefore, if there is an upswing in kids shooting guns and killing people, as recent stories would suggest, those cases would not be prosecuted in juvenile court – they would be in regular criminal court.

Another reason could be that budget-crunched police departments are spending less time prosecuting minor offenses in general, which would include juvenile crimes, and that prosecutors are taking more juvenile offenders and sending them to diversion programs outside of the courts in hopes of preventing further criminal conduct by said offenders.

Angelo McClaim, commissioner of Massachusetts’ Department of Children and Families (formerly, the Department of Social Services) would like to take some credit and claims that “On a philosophical level, we believe kids are better off if they can be at home rather than a juvenile facility or foster home…We used to think, ‘Where can we find a bed?’ Now we think, ‘Where can we find a team?’ ”

Well, as nice as that may sound, it falls flat on the ears of most people who have had experience with DCF. In my experience and opinion, most of their cases involve a near-mindless rush to judgment in cases, almost irreparable damage being done to families by students (“investigators” for DCF) who somehow find themselves suddenly cloaked with powers that effect lives without the intellectual agility or experience to wield that power.

Most families who are lucky enough to remain intact after finally shaking DCF’s vampiristic grip will do almost anything to be sure not to contact them, or law enforcement, again. Thus, fewer DCF matters going to court.

So , I hate to be the downer at the party, but I am concerned. Very concerned. I worry that we will start to get over-confident with statistics that may very well not mean what we think they mean. I am also scared to death as to what our rushed so-called “anti-bullying statute” is going to mean to today’s kids as schools find themselves torn between helping kids and minimizing liability.

Although I do appreciate the new holiday, “No Name Calling Day” which was one of the few things that said law created.

But, hey, that’s my problem. Your problem may be that you have already been accused of committing a crime, juvenile or adult, that is bringing you fear. If so, get an experienced criminal defense lawyer. If you would like that attorney to be me, please feel free to call me to arrange a free initial consultation at 617-492-3000.

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