On July 23, 1995, an intruder brutally attacked and stabbed Janet Downing approximately 100 times in her Somerville home. The revolting Downing murder and ensuing arrest of Edward O'Brien Jr., a 15-year-old juvenile whom prosecutors say committed the heinous crime, sent shockwaves through the state. When Somerville District Court Judge Paul P. Hefferman ruled that the Commonwealth try Mr. O'Brien as a juvenile, those shockwaves grew in intensity, and the citizens of Massachusetts, fed up with increasing youth violence and perceptions of an ineffective juvenile justice system, demanded the enactment of tough new laws to deal with repeat and violent juvenile offenders. The Great and General Court of Massachusetts headed these demands for reform of the juvenile justice system and enacted legislation that, among other things, abolishes the trial de novo system in the juvenile courts, requires the trial of juveniles charged with murder, manslaughter, aggravated rape, forcible rape of a child, kidnaping, assault with intent to rob or murder and armed burglary in adult court and permits prosecutors to open to the public juvenile proceedings when they seek an adult sentence. Although proponents tout these measures as a sagacious solution for the vexatious problem of juvenile delinquency, abolishing the trial de novo system, providing for automatic adult trials and opening juvenile proceedings to the public when prosecutors seek an adult sentence works to the detriment, not the benefit, of juveniles and society. Therefore, the policy makers of Massachusetts should repeal most sections of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act and develop other policies to deal with the rising problem of juvenile crime.
I. A SINGLE TRIAL SYSTEM PREVENTS COURTS FROM PROVIDING RAPID ASSISTANCE TO JUVENILES IN NEED, DOES LITTLE TO SERVE JUDICIAL ECONOMY AND PLACES A SIMILAR BURDEN AS THE DE NOVO SYSTEM ON VICTIMS AND WITNESSES.
Proponents of a single trial system for juveniles argue that the trial de novo system wastes judicial resources by giving defendants a second bite at the apple and traumatizes victims and witnesses by forcing them to testify at two proceedings. However, these proponents fail to acknowledge that the de novo system allows judges to quickly provide juveniles with the rehabilitative help they need. The proponents, unsurprisingly, also fail to acknowledge that a single trial system may place a greater burden on judicial resources and a similar burden on victims and witnesses.
The de novo system benefits juveniles by encouraging bench trials, which frequently result in the swift administration of rehabilitative help. For many juveniles, delinquency is a reaction to a variety of situational stressors. Statistics indicate that the vast majority of juvenile delinquents are exposed to abuse and neglect, harsh or erratic parenting, and socioeconomic deprivation. Experts believe that if the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate juveniles and make them productive members of our society, it must address these problems as swiftly as possible. A de novo system encourages juveniles, many of whom want judicial help, to request a bench trial. Likewise, under a de novo system, defense attorneys are encouraged to recommend an initial bench trial because the court's decision does not bind clients if it is not in their interest. On the other hand, a single trial system discourages juveniles and defense attorneys from requesting a bench trial. Because jury trials are more lengthy than bench trials and may drag out for over a year, the current policy of encouraging juveniles to seek an initial jury trial denies them the rehabilitative help they need for a significant period of time. Therefore, the de novo system is the...