// black kids // white kids

An Interactive Overview of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System

What is the Juvenile Justice System?

What happens when a child is accused of breaking the law in Massachusetts? While the government likes to imagine a uniform (and fair) state response depending on what the child is accused of having done, data suggests that the child’s zipcode, economic status, and the color of their skin all play a role in determining whether they will be caught and arrested, as well as how they will be processed by the system.

Each year, more than 11,000 children in Massachusetts are involved in the juvenile justice system. The system itself is a compilation of municipal, county, and state systems and community actors that make up the state’s formal response to children (age 7-17 in Massachusetts) who are accused of having broken the law.

Children in the juvenile justice system, 2015
Source: Data pulled and calculated from Massachusetts
JDAI RRI Dashboard, which draws from EOPSS, DYS, and Juvenile Court data. Arrest data does not include Boston or Lawrence, as these locations do not disaggregate by race/ethnicity of arrestee. Due to lack of publicly available data, calculations that end in a ‘0’ are educated guesses made by the authors. Note that the above is not comprehensive as there are many additional steps in the system. For a more complete map of the system, see JDAI's Case Processing map.

Most children who enter the juvenile justice system do not end up incarcerated (ie Committed to DYS), and there are numerous “off-ramps” where children leave the system: for example diversion by prosecutors, or the ‘Case Dismissed or CWOF.’ In 2015, 5,720 children were arrested, but only 396 were ultimately committed to the Department of Youth Services (DYS). In between arrest and commitment, the case may be arraigned, at which point a judge decides if the child will be detained (held in jail) or released to the parent/guardian pending a court date. Research shows children who are detained are less likely to graduate high school and more likely to be incarcerated as an adult. After adjudication, the judge determines whether a child is committed to DYS until their 18th birthday, given probation supervision, or released because the case is dismissed or CWOFed (see glossary of key terms).



The majority of Massachusetts children age 12-17 report engaging in some form of chargeable behavior, and children self-report levels of offending at similar rates across different racial and ethnic groups for most offenses. While only a small fraction of these children get identified by authorities as having done something illegal, children of color are arrested, prosecuted, detained, and committed at a higher rate than white children.

Out of 490,338 children aged 12-17 in Massachusetts, more than 60% report engaging in illegal activity (primarily drinking alcohol). Self-reported data often undercounts so this number may in fact be higher.
Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavioral Health Survey 2015


Source: US Census, Youth Risk Behavioral Health survey, JDAI Massachusetts

Race Matters

Source: Massachusetts DYS. Massachusetts JDAI: Decision-Specific Relative Rate Index (RRI) Dashboard

Racial and ethnic disparities permeate the juvenile justice system in Massachusetts. The data shows us that Black and Latino children are more likely to be arrested, detained, and committed, while white children get to use off-ramps (like diversion) more than others. The Sentencing Project shows Massachusetts to be one of 6 states where black youth are at least 10 times as likely to be locked up as white youth, while data from the Burns Institute ranks Massachusetts 46th out of 50 states for racial disparities in youth incarceration rates.

The diagrams below show the same system flow but only calculating how black and white children move through the system. While only 38% of white children who were arrested got arraigned, 64% of arrested black youth did. A much higher proportion of black children move further into the system, whereas more white children accessed off-ramps such as clerk magistrate or DA diversion.

How black children move through the system:

How white children move through the system.


Geography Matters

Source: Universal Crime Reports (UCR) data submitted to FBI via EOPSS.

There is wide variation of arrest rates between different cities and towns. While the state average is 0.9 child arrests per 1000 in the overall population, juvenile arrest rates range from 0 to more than 10 child arrests per 1000, depending on the municipality. The municipalities with the 20 highest number of juvenile arrests make up 31% of the state population but 49% of the juvenile arrests. Because policing policy and practice differs from one town to the next, the town where a child lives has a significant effect on whether they may be arrested and drawn into the juvenile justice system, or diverted. Only a minority of police departments currently operate formal diversion programs, which can link children to resources and programs to meet their needs without resorting to prosecution and treatment by the Juvenile Court. 

Poverty Matters

Source: Universal Crime Reports (UCR) data submitted to FBI via EOPSS.

Children who are wrapped up in the juvenile justice system overwhelmingly come from families in poverty. As the map above of the Springfield, MA area shows, cities (and especially poor neighborhoods within cities) account for the majority of children who are arrested and end up in the juvenile justice system. In recognition of this fact, the Massachusetts Trial Court decided by Court Rule in November 2016 to assume that all children in conflict with the law are ‘indigent,’ and therefore all children are assigned free legal counsel (i.e. a defense lawyer) at arraignment without requiring that a family prove they are in poverty.

Data Matters  

data matters 2.png

As noted in the system map, due to lack of publicly available data, some calculations were educated guesses made by the authors indicating the type of data quality.

The data to understand and describe the workings of Massachusetts’ juvenile justice system is not consistently collected or made public. The above chart shows that some agencies (such as DYS) publish their data regularly, and others (such as District Attorneys and the Juvenile Court) do not. It does not have to be this way. Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice is leading the way in public-facing visualizations for state-level juvenile justice. They collect the data (Massachusetts government entities often fail to collect, or choose not to share, necessary data), and they have built up the internal capacity to share some great reports.

Bright Spots in the System

The Massachusetts juvenile justice system does have some excellent programs and models worthy of highlighting. A few examples include:

  • Some Massachusetts police departments have innovative diversion programs, such as the Cambridge Safety Net Collaborative, and partnerships between police departments and Communities for Restorative Justice (C4RJ) to keep children from penetrating deeper into the system. Brookline Police’s use of the Massachusetts Arrest Screening Tool for Law Enforcement (MASTLE) risk screening tool at the point of arrest has shown promise in reducing both the number of children arrested and reducing racial and ethnic disparities in arrest.

  • Children in Massachusetts get specialized public defenders for kids thanks to the Youth Advocacy Division (YAD) of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Their integration of Positive Youth Development principles and education advocacy help focus on the positive outcomes for young people as they transition to adulthood.

  • Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) is looked to as a national leader, with progressive policies regarding LGBTQ youth and solitary confinement, a strong focus on Positive Youth Development, and reliance on small group home settings and even foster care, in addition to secure facilities. Additionally, over half of DYS-involved young people voluntarily access services after their release. DYS sits in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which further bolsters its rehabilitative approach.

  • Massachusetts Probation Service is working to improve race and ethnicity data collection, and target probation services for higher risk young people.

  • There is a wide network of committed service providers who contract with DYS and DCF to provide small group homes and to staff some secure (i.e. lock-up) facilities.

  • Several inter-agency efforts (including JDAI and the Leadership Forum) show an increasing level of trust and cooperation at the leadership level, which bodes well for current and future system-wide planning and improvement.

  • The new justice reform package, signed into law in April 2018, raises the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 7 to 12 years old, bringing Massachusetts in line with international standards and developmental research. Raising the lower age means that children under 12 in Massachusetts will be met with social services, not prosecution and incarceration.

  • After years of advocacy from the Massachusetts Coalition for Juvenile Justice Reform, headed by CfJJ, the justice reform package signed by Governor Baker in April 2018 enacted several significant juvenile justice reforms.

Policy Recommendations

Recommendation #1: Address systemic racism, implicit, and explicit bias in our system through strategies such as training, policy assessment, links to poverty reduction, data collection and transparency, and the incorporation of the voices and guidance of those most impacted by the system.

Recommendation #2: Increase opportunities for ‘off-ramps’ for kids such as diversion programs run by police and District Attorneys and pre-arraignment diversion by judges. There is a huge opportunity not only to avoid the negative long-term effects system involvement, but also connect young people to the services they need.  With all diversion program design, policy-makers should be careful of “net-widening,” or providing services to children who do not need any. State-level policy-makers should help foment an ecosystem wherein diversion programs are available to all children in the Commonwealth, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, geography, or socioeconomic status.

Recommendation #3: Require better data collection, public reporting, and use for policy improvement, especially regarding race and ethnicity data. There are several key decision points in our system where this data is not publicly available, such as at the Court and District Attorney level. There are examples of excellent state-operated data collection, analysis, and visualization efforts across the country to provide information for policymakers and the public on the scope and effectiveness of juvenile justice systems. The newly formed Juvenile Justice Policy and Data board has been tasked with assessing data systems' capacities and making recommendations for improvement. 

Recommendation #4: Raise the upper age to include 18-20 year olds within the juvenile justice system.

Recommendation #5: Focus on positive outcomes for children, not just recidivism. Examples of such measures include educational outcomes, health outcomes, and other long-term trajectory indicators.


With thanks to Joshua Dankoff, Corallys Plasencia and Deborah Cardoso for their data visualizations.