Posted On: February 1, 2013

Massachusetts Juveniles Don't Escape Creative Sentencing

Here’s another example of “creative sentencing,” a judicial approach to punishing criminal defendants that doesn’t rely on the “traditional” penalties of fines and incarceration. Alternative, or creative, sentencing is growing in popularity across the country, and here in Massachusetts, also.

And it isn’t limited to just adult defendants. Here in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Appeals Court handed down a ruling this past week that many in the media have paid some interesting notice to. The case involves an 11-year-old boy, who it seems had too much time on his hands, and too little regard or respect for the property or the property rights of others. The boy, through an attorney, had admitted to intentionally vandalizing neighbors’ homes by spray painting the sides of their houses. A judge put the boy on one year’s probation and ordered him to pay restitution to the victims of approximately $1,000 as damages in that time frame. The boy never paid a cent. So, what is a concerned judge to mete out for punishment to such a kid? Dismiss the charge? Place the boy on some form of minor probation? Order him to just apologize to the victims? A wise judge doesn’t want to stain such a child’s future with a criminal conviction at this young age, but neither should a judge send a message to the juvenile defendant, and in the process to other young people, that vandalism or breaking the law is somehow “not that important.”

So, once informed of the boy’s failure to obey the order, the District Court judge in this case took a different turn: He ordered the boy to get a job to pay off the approximately $1,000 in property damage he was previously ordered to pay. His court-appointed defense attorney objected, claiming that the judge’s order that the boy get a job was somehow “contrary to juvenile law.” His attorney claimed that “The state itself limits what they [12-year-olds] can do …Where does a 12-year-old find work to pay this off? It’s not going to happen.’’ His attorney appealed the District Court sentence to the state Appeals Court, making all these arguments.

The Appeals Court consists of three judge panels, and this particular panel wasn’t buying this argument, at all. Judge William J. Meade, wrote that the boy could easily find work of the type that young children have always engaged in - “earning money [from] a paper route, mowing lawns, raking leaves, shoveling snow, baby-sitting, delivering groceries, [or other similar activities.]” The Appeals Court also noted that Massachusetts law permits children as young as 9 years old to work as a newspaper delivery boy or girl. Very centrally, Meade highlighted that the District Court judge’s sentence was not motivated by money, but rather to teach a lesson about respect for the law and for other people’s property. “[The District Court judge] properly sought to teach the juvenile one of life’s primary lessons: He is responsible for the actions he takes,’’ Meade wrote. “Such an order not only provided an opportunity to build the juvenile’s character and integrity, but also to promote his life as a law-abiding citizen."

As a Dedham Massachusetts Property Crimes lawyer, I thoroughly agree with alternative and creative sentencing such as this. If the judge had agreed to “file” (or not prosecute) this case, or had similarly given this kid a “free pass,” that would send the wrong message to this one juvenile defendant, as well as to other youths as well as adults.