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Juvenile arrests, court filings, detentions, commitments see sharp decline, racial disparities widen



BOSTON — A new report released Tuesday by the state Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board finds that the number of youth involved in Massachusetts’ juvenile justice system declined last fiscal year, continuing a multiyear trend. At the same time, the JJPAD Board found that significant racial and ethnic disparities continue to exist at every stage of the juvenile justice process.

“More than two years after the implementation of An Act Relative to Criminal Justice Reform, it’s clear from the data that the law had one of its intended effects: reducing overall juvenile justice system involvement by keeping youth with lower-level offenses out of the system,” said Maria Mossaides, Director of the Office of the Child Advocate and Chair of the JJPAD Board. “Yet even as we celebrate this progress, it’s also clear that much more work needs to be done to address persistent racial and ethnic disparities in our system.”

Accompanying this year’s report is a new interactive data website that allows members of the public and researchers to explore the state’s juvenile justice system data. This website, which was developed by the Office of the Child Advocate in partnership with the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security (EOTSS), is designed to improve public access to key juvenile justice system data points. The OCA will update the site over time with additional data sets and interactive visualizations.

“Data visualization, done well, can help the public better understand complex topics, such as the juvenile justice system – while increasing access and usability of relevant data can help system actors make better, data-informed policy decisions,” said EOTSS Secretary and Commonwealth CIO Curt Wood. “One of our goals at EOTSS is to help our partners in state government better utilize technology, design, and data to improve the functioning of government, and this project is a great example of what can be achieved through this kind of collaboration.”

Since the start of Fiscal Year 2019 (July 2018), when An Act Relative to Criminal Justice Reform went into effect, there have been significant declines in utilization of the juvenile justice system at all process points, including:

A 41% decline in custodial arrests
A 44% decrease in the number of delinquency cases filed in juvenile court
A 38% decrease in youth admissions to pretrial detention, and
A 36% reduction in the number of youth committed to the Department of Youth Services (DYS)

Juvenile arrests, court filings, detentions and commitments have all been in decline for a number of years, but the rate of decline accelerated significantly in FY19, the first year following implementation of the new law. The declines continued in FY20, albeit at a pace closer to what was seen before the passage of the bill. The reductions over the past two years have been driven by large decreases in the kinds of lower-level offenses targeted by the legislation, including school disturbance/public order, property, and alcohol offenses.

The report finds, however, that overrepresentation of Black and Latinx youth remains at each stage of the juvenile justice system — and that at some stages, disparities have widened even as overall numbers decline:

While Black youth make up 10% of the Massachusetts youth population, in FY20 they accounted for 43% of custodial arrests, 25% of cases filed in Juvenile Court, 33% of pretrial detention admissions and 28% of commitments to DYS.

Latinx youth—just 17% of Massachusetts’ youth population—were also overrepresented at each stage: 33% of all custodial arrests, 27% of cases filed in Juvenile Court, 42% of pretrial detention admissions and 44% of commitments to DYS.

Although the JJPAD Board did not have access to data that would allow the Board to isolate the impact of factors such as charge type and seriousness on disparities, the report notes that other studies in recent years have found that racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system cannot be entirely attributed to factors such as charge type or a youth’s history with the justice system.

The report outlines the importance of diverting youth away from the system and provides data suggesting that there may be more opportunity for more youth to be effectively diverted pre-arraignment. The report estimates that a large proportion – likely somewhere between a half and three quarters – of youth cases that are brought to arraignment are ultimately dismissed or the youth is found not delinquent.

“There is a strong body of research demonstrating that effective use of diversion can increase positive life outcomes for youth while reducing the likelihood a youth recidivates. In many cases, formally processing a youth through the justice system can do more harm than good,” said Melissa Threadgill, Director of Juvenile Justice Initiatives at the Office of the Child Advocate. “While use of diversion has increased in Massachusetts in recent years, the data suggests there is still room to reduce the number of youth who are arraigned each year through increased diversion.”

The report also includes an analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on juvenile justice agencies and the youth/families they serve, as well as a summary of the Board’s work on diversion, data quality and accessibility, and childhood trauma over the past year.

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