Mass. Court: State Can't Hold Youth 3 Extra Years

The highest court in Massachusetts on Tuesday struck down a law that allows the state to hold juvenile criminals it deems dangerous in custody for three years after they turn 18, saying it violates the constitutional rights of the offenders.

The extended commitment law allows the Department of Youth Services to keep a juvenile up to age 21 if the department determines the youth would be physically dangerous to the public. Most offenders are released when they turn 18.

The Supreme Judicial Court, ruling in a case brought by three juveniles, found the law unconstitutional because it does not clearly define "dangerousness." The law dropped a requirement that physical dangerousness be due to a mental condition when it was revised by the Legislature in 1990, the court noted.

"A weakness in the present statute is that it permits extended detention based solely on dangerousness, without any link to a mental condition or defect or an inability to control one's behavior," Justice Judith Cowin wrote in the unanimous decision.

Attorney Barbara Kaban, who represented the three youths who challenged the law, called the decision a victory for juvenile offenders locked up after they become adults.

"The court said we don't lock people up based on an allegation of dangerousness when we don't know what that means," said Kaban, who is deputy director of the Children's Law Center of Massachusetts.

"It's too vague, it's unconstitutional," she said.

A spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office defended the Department of Youth Services, had no immediate comment. A spokeswoman for DYS did not immediately return a call by The Associated Press.

The ruling does not detail the crimes committed by the youths, but Kaban said they included larceny and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.

All were turned over to the department's custody when they were 16. Each was initially placed on probation, then sent back to one of the department's juvenile detention facilities after violating the terms of his probation at least once. The department filed applications for extended commitment orders for all three shortly before they turned 18.

In its ruling, the court said the law "contains no indication of the nature and degree of dangerousness that would justify continued commitment." The court cited the extended commitment report on one of the youths, which says he has a tendency to defy authority, but also states he is "too upbeat and positive given his current circumstances."

"It just seems ripe for abuse because it doesn't define dangerousness," said Erica Cushna, an attorney for one of the youths.

The court said it advised the Legislature in a 2004 ruling that it had "grave concerns" about the constitutionality of the law and invited lawmakers to correct the problem.

"The Legislature, however, has chosen not to act," Cowin wrote.

This program aired on February 10, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.