BOSTON — Arrests and jail sentences for young offenders have plummeted since an overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice laws two years ago, but advocates say minority youth are still more likely to be caught in the system.

A new report by a state commission looking at the impact of the reforms found that arrests of suspects age 18 and under dropped 43% between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, while delinquency filings for offenses such as school disturbances and underage drinking dropped 33%.

The number of young offenders incarcerated also declined, with first-time commitments to the Department of Youth Services declining 17% during the one-year period.

Advocates attribute the decline, in part, to a 2018 law that raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 12 years old and decriminalized some minor offenses for juveniles, such as disturbing a school assembly or getting caught with alcohol.

The law also gives juveniles an opportunity to keep their record clean, with a one-time “pass” on a first-offense misdemeanor charge, taking minor cases out of the criminal justice system entirely for first-offenders. 

And that, say observers, has also played a role, since police now only arrest and seek charges if a juvenile has a prior court history. 

While that may have created something of what the Supreme Judicial Court last year called a “Catch-22” — a situation in which every offense becomes a first offense that cannot be prosecuted, the SJC has created a procedure for situations where a juvenile commits a repeated offense, the result of a North Shore case involving a teen charged with a driving offense. 

“There’s a real impetus now to say ‘why is this child acting this way?’” said Salem attorney Leslie Salter, who represents juveniles in court proceedings. In a case such as truancy or underage marijuana possession, “Rather than just arresting and arraigning, there are more resources available to try to figure out what’s going on,” such as potential attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or a substance abuse problem, or even just stress at home. 

Rather than facing a delinquency proceeding, juveniles are more frequently referred to “diversion” programs, which allow them to avoid a finding of delinquency while engaging in activities like community service as well as educational programs. 

And even when a teenager commits more serious crimes and does enter the criminal justice system, Salter said, the Department of Youth Services has more tools available to deal with underlying problems — and potentially prevent future arrests and prosecutions.

Pauline Quirion, a lawyer at Greater Boston Legal Services, said the data suggests the law is working as intended by keeping youthful offenders out of the “school-to-prison” pipeline.

“What they really need is help,” Quirion said. “The brain isn’t fully developed until 25, and studies have shown that incarcerating young adults only increases the rate of recidivism.”

Advocacy groups such as Citizens for Juvenile Justice say the declining numbers dispel “myths” that easing delinquency laws would lead to a wave of youth crime.

“It doesn’t happen, and there’s no evidence of it,” said Leon Smith, the group’s executive director. “We’re keeping kids out of the system and showing that it’s good public policy.”

Meanwhile, a separate state commission is looking at raising the age of criminal jurisdiction by juvenile courts by another year or two, possibly as high as 21.

The panel, which is co-chaired by Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, is also gauging the effectiveness of the state’s youthful offender programs, which help young people avoid jail if they participate in counseling or diversion programs.

Smith and other advocates point out that the 18- to 21-year-old age group has the highest rate of recidivism among criminal offenders in the state.

“Young people make mistakes,” Smith said. “But they shouldn’t be forced to pay for them for the rest of their lives.”

Stats show declining trend

Members of the commission that reviewed the impact of the 2018 juvenile justice reforms, which included child advocates, lawmakers and other state officials, noted that the decline in youthful arrests and incarcerations is part of a long-term trend. Its report points to statistics showing that juvenile crimes have been going down for years.

“This decrease cannot be attributed to any single factor but a collection of initiatives, agency policy and practice changes, reform legislation and public attitudes,” the report noted.

In 2018, there were 4,508 arrests of individuals under 18 in the Bay State, according to the latest Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics.

Of those arrests, 464 were for violent crimes. None were for murder or manslaughter charges, 17 arrests were for rape and 359 for aggravated assault.

That’s a more than 70% decrease from 2010, when 14,623 individuals under 18 were arrested.

Despite the declining numbers of youths entering the juvenile justice system, the report points out that youth of color are still disproportionately affected.

Black and Latino youth, who represent 26% of the state’s population of 12- to 17-year-olds, accounted for 56% of the delinquency filings in fiscal 2019, according to data from the commission’s report.

Forty-eight percent of those committed to DYS for the first time were Latino, the data shows.

“We have to be honest that racial and ethnic disparities still exist,” Smith said. “We need to create a more equitable system, and that’s where we have a lot of work to do.”

Courts reporter Julie Manganis contributed to this report.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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