Senate Passes Juvenile Court and Civil Asset Forfeiture Legislation

Senate passes bills related to juvenile diversion, bail practices for juveniles,
 and civil asset forfeiture reform

(BOSTON – 06/30/2022) The Massachusetts State Senate this week passed three bills which reform various aspects of the criminal legal system to create fairer processes and encourage rehabilitation. Two of the bills, S.2942 An Act promoting diversion of juveniles to community supervision and services and S.2943 An Act updating bail procedures for justice involved youth would address how criminal courts divert convicted youth from jail and improve processes which allow certain youth to stay out of jail while their cases are pending. A third bill, S.2944 An Act relative to forfeiture reform, would raise the burden of proof required for civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize items alleged to have been connected to a crime. Senator Cindy F. Friedman (D-Arlington) supported all three bills.

“These bills build off of the important work that the Legislature has done in previous sessions to help reduce the rate of recidivism in Massachusetts,” said Senator Friedman, Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “More youth and young adult criminal justice diversion strategies are critical – we must continue to offer alternative options to juvenile detention. Our criminal justice system needs to focus more on rehabilitation and less on punishment, especially for our low-income youths who are disproportionately hurt by juvenile detention.”

Juvenile Criminal Legal Reform

Massachusetts residents aged 12 to18 who are accused of breaking the law are subject to the decisions of the juvenile criminal legal system. In 2018, the Senate championed judicial pre-arraignment diversion, which allows cases to be diverted from the criminal courts to community service, resolving cases without a criminal record. This has resulted in fewer juvenile criminal records overall, particularly for possession of alcohol or disorderly conduct charges. There remain only a few offenses for which a teenager can be sent to community services, however, and Black and Latinx youth remain over-represented in the juvenile criminal legal system and more likely to receive harsher punishments than white juveniles.

A large body of research suggests that diversion programs are more likely to help a convicted individual reintegrate with society and lead to lower rates of future offenses. Senate Bill 2942, An Act promoting diversion of juveniles to community supervision and services, expands the list of offenses for which juvenile courts may divert accused juveniles from prison to community service. A given individual’s eligibility for diversion would be determined on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the presiding judge of the juvenile court.

An additional bill focusing on reforms to the juvenile criminal legal system, Senate Bill 2943, An Act updating bail procedures for justice involved youth, overhauls bail requirements for juveniles in the Commonwealth. The bill waives the $40 bail fee for juveniles and allows courts to accept a promise from a juvenile’s parents that the child will return to court as an alternative to bail, subject to the discretion of courtroom administrators. Under the bill, the Commonwealth would cover any costs that result from bail not being taken. Bail is currently administered inconsistently across Massachusetts, sometimes by police themselves. This bill clarifies that the bail magistrate, a neutral party, would have the sole authority to make a bail determination.

This Senate bill also modernizes how bail is administered by allowing bail to be paid virtually or through a mobile payment system, and oaths or affirmations necessary for bail to be made by telephone, video conferencing, or other virtual methods as needed. The bill ensures that bail magistrates are notified of a juvenile’s arrest even if the court with jurisdiction over the offense is not currently in session, preventing a juvenile from being kept in detention unnecessarily.

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement and prosecutors to seize property which is alleged to have been involved in a crime. Under current Massachusetts law, individuals who believe that their possessions were wrongly forfeited are required to demonstrate that these items were not involved in a crime or otherwise do not meet the standard required for forfeiture. This puts the burden of proof on the accused, rather than on law enforcement or prosecutors, making it difficult and time-consuming to repossess forfeited items.

Senate Bill 2944, An Act relative to forfeiture reform, rectifies this by requiring that law enforcement or prosecutors prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that property seized is in fact subject to civil asset forfeiture under Massachusetts law. Forfeiture hearings would include accused individuals’ legal counsel. The bill also allows forfeiture hearings to be delayed until after the outcome of any related criminal trial, so that if the accused is found to be innocent, seized assets would be returned without delay. This Senate bill also limits the value of items taken in civil asset forfeiture to $250 or less.

Having been passed in the Senate, the three bills will now go to House of Representatives for further consideration.