responsibility 12 in Massachusetts, lawmakers hope that they will prevent children from
ever getting involved in the criminal justice system, which will lead to better outcomes for
children and families.
III. WHY RAISE THE AGE?
Previously, the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Massachusetts was
seven. This meant anyone over the age of seven could be criminally prosecuted in juvenile
court. Raising the minimum age will hopefully keep more kids out of the juvenile justice
system. But how many seven to 11 year olds commit crimes and are involved in the juvenile
justice system? According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention,
eight percent of all delinquency cases handled in juvenile court throughout the country in
2015 were under the age of 13. While this is a very small percentage of children who are
brought into juvenile court, raising the minimum age will still have a significant impact on
those children who might otherwise be brought into the system. Children who are seven
through 11 years old will no longer have to be prosecuted in juvenile courts and will have
the opportunity to correct their behavior through other means.
Additionally, children under the age of 12 may have difficulty comprehending the
court process. This brings into question a person’s competency to stand trial. A 2003 study
found that children ages 11 to 13 “demonstrated significantly poorer understanding of trial
matters, as well as poorer reasoning and recognition of the relevance of information for a
legal defense, than did 14 and 15 year olds.” Because of their diminished capacity, children
under the age of 12 cannot participate sufficiently in their defense as constitutionally
required. Therefore, it is logical to exclude young children from prosecution in juvenile
courts in order to preserve their constitutional protections.
Finally, not prosecuting children under 12 reduces the amount of judicial and law
enforcement resources. While the number of children being excluded under this law from
prosecution may be small, it will still save the juvenile courts time and money from not
having to process these children. Law enforcement will also save resources because they
will not have to arrest and supervise any of these children.
IV. WHAT WILL HAPPEN NOW THAT YOUNG CHILDREN CANNOT BE PROSECUTED?
If children under the age of 12 commit acts that could be considered crimes, what
will happen to them now that they cannot be arrested and prosecuted in the juvenile court
system in Massachusetts? This seems to be a question that remains unanswered in the
Massachusetts legislation, but one that needs attention. The first potential alternative is that
the child would become involved in the child welfare system. If a child commits an act that
could be considered a crime and a person calls the police, the police would not be able to
arrest the child and so they might call the local child abuse and neglect hotline for
assistance. This could result in the child being taken away from their family and put into
alternative placements. While in some circumstances this may be warranted, in others these
families might not be families who would otherwise be involved with the child welfare