New laws typically do not apply retroactively to cases that have come before its passage. Retroactive application arose recently in the context of juvenile delinquency law by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
New juvenile delinquency law
At the center of this case was a significant change in the law. Historically, a child between the ages of 7 and 18 would be adjudicated as a delinquent child. As part of significant criminal justice reform, Massachusetts passed a new law regarding juvenile delinquency on July 12, 2018. According this new law, a child would not be adjudicated delinquent under 12 years of age. The new law also applies if the child committed a civil infraction or violates a municipal ordinance or town bylaw. Additionally, that that juvenile commits a first offense of a misdemeanor. Punishment for a misdemeanor is a fine and/or imprisonment for no more than six months.
Retroactively applying the new laws
In addressing this new juvenile delinquency law, the high court consolidated and addressed two different cases involving children. The first involved an 11-year-old accused of rape and abuse of a child. This case argued that the act’s amended definition of “delinquent child” should apply retroactively. The Juvenile Court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate as a “delinquent child” because they were eleven years old at the time.
The second case involved trespassing and disorderly conduct. The case “moved to dismiss” the charges prior to arraignment as there was no prior criminal or delinquency record. However, neither charged offense was a qualifying offense under the amended definition of “delinquent child.”
Proactive application of juvenile delinquency laws
The high court first looked at the Legislature’s intent in enacting the new statute. The legislative intent and history did not suggest retroactive application of the new law. The Court explained that there is a presumption that new laws are proactive in their application.
New laws typically do not apply retroactively to cases that have come before its passage. Retroactive application arose recently in the context of juvenile delinquency law by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. In order for such retroactive application, the Legislature must use clear language to that effect when enacting the statute. That was not the case here and the Court found no legislative intent.
The high court also acknowledged where legislative intent does not suggest retroactive application. This would only be appropriate if prospective application would be ‘repugnant to the context’ of the statutory amendment. Allowing the juveniles to be adjudicated delinquent is contradictory to the Legislature’s goal of giving children a second chance. Thus, making proactive application repugnant.
The text of § 72 that the Legislature intended to reduce the number of children who enter the juvenile justice system by narrowing the definition. This adjustment excludes children below the age of twelve and children who commit civil infractions, violate a municipal ordinance or town bylaw, or commit a first offense of a minor misdemeanor. The adjusted age implicitly declared that the juvenile justice system is not the appropriate forum to address offenses committed by children under twelve.
The juvenile justice system it is not the forum to address civil infractions, or first offenses of a minor misdemeanor committed by any child. These matters should not result in a juvenile record that may later adversely affect a child and increase risk to recidivate. The Court see no reason to delay the application of an amendment designated to combat the negative effects of Juvenile Court involvement on children and their communities.
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