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Juvenile Justice Update | March 2024

March 11, 2024

From the Courts: Massachusetts

In January, Massachusetts became the first state to ban life without parole for young people ages 18 to 20. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Kimberly Budd concluded, “Advancements in scientific research have confirmed what many know well through experience: the brains of emerging adults are not fully mature. Specifically, the scientific record strongly supports the contention that emerging adults have the same core neurological characteristics as juveniles have.” The decision builds on the state’s previous prohibition on juvenile life without parole for youth under 18, starting with a court ruling in 2013 and the passage of House Bill 4307 in 2014. 

As of 2024, 28 states and Washington, D.C. have banned juvenile life without parole either through statute or court ruling. During the 2023 legislative session, three states—IllinoisMinnesota and New Mexico—enacted laws requiring parole eligibility for young people convicted of serious crimes. In Illinois, a minor sentenced to life in prison will be eligible for parole after serving 40 years; in Minnesota and New Mexico the required amount of time served before an individual’s case can be reviewed by the parole board depends on the severity of the offense.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling upholds the state’s sentencing structure for youth sentenced to life in prison and applies retroactively. In response to the decision, Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell stated, “Today’s ruling underscores the importance of our legal system acknowledging the ongoing brain development of young people in order to improve public safety, reduce recidivism and deliver justice. The science emphatically demonstrates that young people have an extraordinary capacity to change and mature, and our justice system should provide them the invaluable opportunity to turn their lives around and fulfil their potential.” 

Visit NCSL’s updated Juvenile Life Without Parole webpage

State in Focus: New Jersey

Young people in New Jersey will now be statutorily guaranteed the right to legal representation at every “critical stage of a court proceeding.” According to Assembly Bill 3117, critical stages “shall include, but not be limited to every court appearance by the juvenile, including all post dispositional appearances; and any interrogation, identification procedure, or other investigative activity involving the juvenile undertaken by law enforcement or prosecutorial personnel subsequent to the filing of the complaint.” The bill was passed unanimously (35-0 in the Senate and 72-0 in the Assembly) by the Legislature in early January.

According to The Gault Center, “The appointment of youth defense counsel sufficiently prior to the first court appearance and early points of contact with probation or police officers, followed by continued representation by the same attorney, is a critical tenet of a child’s constitutional right to counsel.”

According to Democratic Sen. Shirley Turner, “While juveniles were already entitled to representation, it is our hope that this will help to connect them with an attorney as early as possible in the process. Kids are especially vulnerable, and this will reduce the possibility of them being subject to inappropriate treatment or punishment, and work to prevent any other form of injustice from occurring." Similarly, Democratic Assemblyman Reginald Atkins remarked, “Young people facing criminal charges need support so that they don’t become repeat offenders. They need legal guidance to set them on the right path.” Both Turner and Atkins were primary sponsors of the bill.

To learn more, read NCSL’s Recent State Laws Strengthen Rights of Juveniles During Interrogations.

On the Fiscal Front: Funding for New Center Aimed at Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Youth Justice

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention authorized $1.5 million in funding for the Center for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice (the Center).

The Center aims to strengthen jurisdictions’ compliance with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act’s core requirement to decrease racial and ethnic disparities in youth justice, develop and provide training and technical assistance, partner with young people and their families to lead disparity reduction efforts as well as increase stakeholder knowledge about strategies to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system.

According to 2020 data, Black youth were more likely than other racial groups to be referred to juvenile court. White youth were more likely to have their cases diverted away from formal court processing. Additionally, young people of color were detained more frequently than white youth and out-of-home placement was a more likely disposition for Black and Hispanic youth compared to their white counterparts.

Oregon and Vermont passed legislation in 2023 addressing racial and ethnic disparities in their respective youth justice systems. The Youth Authority in Oregon is directed to collect demographic data and “analyze the disparities in outcomes based on the demographics of the persons in the youth authority’s custody” as well as consider “the demographic disparities among adjudicated youths and between adjudicated youths and youth authority employees and how those disparities may affect the cultural appropriateness of the programs.” The new law in Vermont establishes the Council for Equitable Youth Justice which is tasked with supporting “compliance with the core requirements of the [Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018]” as well as reducing “racial and ethnic disparities in Vermont’s juvenile justice system.”

You can read a press release on the new center here.

The Latest in Data: Vermont

When the Vermont Legislature enacted Senate Bill 234 in 2018 (known as the “Raise the Age Law”), it became the first state to extend juvenile court jurisdiction to individuals up to age 20. Currently, young people under 19 fall under the purview of the juvenile court; however,

the state has postponed including 19-year-olds in the juvenile justice system over staffing and facility concerns.

A new report published by Columbia Justice Lab examines Vermont’s Raise the Age law and the impact it has had on the state’s delinquency caseloads. Findings include:

  • Despite the addition of 18-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, delinquency caseloads have decreased following the partial implementation of the Raise the Age Law.
  • 41 delinquency cases involving 18-year-olds were filed during the first six months of the law’s implementation. Of these cases, 37% were diverted.
  • According to the Department for Children and Families 2019 report, 85% of criminal prosecutions involving 18- and 19-year-olds were for misdemeanor offenses. Of these cases, over 40% of all the post-conviction dispositions resulted in a fine.
  • From 2009 to 2022, delinquency cases that resulted in post-disposition custody declined by 85%.
  • From 2020 to 2022, the number of youths on probation declined by 19%.

Juvenile Justice Publications and Resources

See the latest research and publications on juvenile justice policy.

Links to external websites and reports are for information purposes only and do not indicate NCSL’s endorsement of the content.

This project was supported by Grant #15PJDP-22-GK-04988-TITL awarded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this [publication/program/exhibition] are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.

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