Massachusetts Raises Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility
By: Brianna Hill
In April 2018, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, signed into law an extensive
criminal justice overhaul bill. The bill passed with almost unanimous support in the House
and the Senate. Supporters for the bill included the Massachusetts Sheriff’s Association,
the Council of State Governments Justice Center, Greater Boston Legal Services, and
Citizens for Juvenile Justice. The reforms will include bail reform, increased use of
diversion programs, increased availability of expungement of juvenile records, restrictions
on the use of solitary confinement, elimination of mandatory minimums for certain low-
level drug offenses, and tougher penalties for fentanyl and cafentanil trafficking. The bill
passed 148-to-5 in favor in the House of Representatives and 37-to-0 in favor in the Senate.
Among the various provisions, the bill raised the minimum age of juvenile court
jurisdiction from seven to 12. This means that if a child is under 12, the state cannot
prosecute that child for committing an act that otherwise would be considered a crime.
Raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Massachusetts is intended to prevent
involvement in the criminal justice system. However, Massachusetts will now need to
legislate alternative supports for families with children who commit a crime so that both
children and families can receive the help they need.
II. WHY HAVE A MINIMUM AGE OF CRIMINAL RESPONSIBILITY?
Lawmakers in Massachusetts included the minimum age provision in the reform
bill because of their concern regarding involvement in the criminal justice system. They
believe that if a child enters the system at a young age, they will be less likely to break free
of the system as they approach adulthood. “There’s an indisputable link between the age
in which a child enters our criminal justice system and the likelihood of a child remaining
in the system throughout their life,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Claire
Cronin, “So we’ve taken so many steps that will slow down that trajectory, and I think
we’ll see on that end very, very big gains.” In a 2010 study, the Campbell Collaboration
found that juvenile system processing does not appear to have a crime control effect and,
in fact, appears to increase delinquency. Further, the same study found that juvenile system
processing had a much more negative effect than diversion programs. Studies have also
shown that introducing a child to the justice system at a young age can cause substantial
harm and can damage a child’s development.
At this point, 20 states and the American Samoa have a minimum age of criminal
responsibility. The ages range from six to 13. Many of the states include provisions for
murder and sexual crimes that may be tried in adult court or may be prosecuted no matter
how old the child is. Moreover, in some states, parents can be held civilly liable for a crime
their child commits while under the minimum age. By making the minimum age of criminal