Commonwealth v. A Juvenile
This case illustrates the myriad ways racial bias disproportionately harms Black youth in the juvenile justice system. Petitioner, A Juvenile, was a dependent Black girl under the care of the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families (DCF) who was sentenced to the maximum legal sentence of 90 days incarceration for contempt of court after directing a verbal outburst at a juvenile court judge for imposing $1 bail, payable by DCF only, in her delinquency case. She was being adjudicated for running away from her DCF-assigned foster placement. Despite its nominal amount, the bail order was a de facto detention order, as both the Commonwealth and the court acknowledged that DCF has a policy of not paying bail for children in its care. The unique cruelty of the bail order, which had the effect of depriving the child of her preferred residential placement, was the precipitating cause of her outburst.
Juvenile Law Center filed an amicus brief in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in support of A Juvenile’s petition to overturn her contempt sentence. Our brief argued that the 90-day sentence ignored her status as a child and the unique characteristics of youth. We further argued that the sentence was racially biased, reflecting the harmful stereotyping and adultification often used against Black youth, and Black girls specifically, in the juvenile justice system. Finally, we emphasized how the proceedings in the lower court, from arrest, to adjudication, through bail determination and contempt sentencing, reflected not only racial bias, but also gender bias and paternalism that has resulted in the increased criminalization of girls, and specifically girls in the child welfare system.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court vacated the judgement of contempt. Drawing on Miller v. Alabama and related case law, the Court held that the juvenile court judge abused her discretion by not taking A Juvenile's status as a child into account when imposing the 90-day sentence. The Court further held that the judge failed to comply with the requirements of relevant criminal contempt rules.