More than five years after promising to fix the problem, Massachusetts officials continue to violate a federal juvenile justice law designed to protect young defendants from being able to hear or see adult prisoners in courthouse lockups.
The violation has cost the state more than $600,000 in federal funding for at-risk youth programs since 2014, according to an analysis of federal data and a US Department of Justice spokesman.
Court officials promised in December 2014 to remedy the same problem — allowing juveniles to be within eyesight and hearing range of adult defendants in courthouse lockups. The state vowed to act after the Boston Globe reported that it had for years been violating the “sight-sound” provision of the US Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
“We are moving as reasonably quickly as we can to get this problem solved,” said then-Trial Court Administrator Lewis H. “Harry” Spence, who called the problem “pretty large scale” at the time.
Now the state says violations won’t be remedied until at least 2022, according to a three-year plan from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
Massachusetts has been in violation of the federal law requiring juvenile “sight-sound separation” from adults since at least 2009, according to annual inspection reports.
As of 2018, the most recent year for which federal data is available, Massachusetts was one of just three states in violation of the courthouse lockup provision of the law.
There were 2,502 sight and sound violations at courthouses throughout the state, according to a federal compliance report provided in response to a public records request in December.
In Quincy District Court, the violations are a regular occurrence, said Mark Koch, a bar advocate who takes court-appointed juvenile cases. He expressed frustration that his clients are still being exposed to adults.
“Nothing has changed,” he said. Koch interprets the state’s slow progress to mean “the kids don’t matter.”
Quincy District Court has had an estimated 180 violations annually, according to a 2018 state assessment of sight and sound issues.
There is only one juvenile cell in Quincy District Court, meaning juvenile defendants must frequently use one of the two cells reserved for adult female defendants, according to the assessment. When there are both male and female juveniles in the holding facility and the adult cells are full, female juveniles are placed in chairs in the holding facility’s hallway, leaving them in sight and sound of adults, the assessment found.
Koch said juveniles in Quincy can see and hear adults, including those that are banging on the doors, screaming, yelling, or going through drug withdrawal.
Juveniles as young as 13 have been booked on a Thursday or Friday and held overnight under Department of Youth Services custody, Koch said, without their parents or the Department of Children and Families to pick them up at the police station.
“Every time there's custody, it's a sight and sound violation, because of the way the lockup is set up in Quincy court,” Koch said.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act provides grants to states that comply with federal regulations on the treatment of incarcerated juveniles and the juvenile justice system.
States in violation of any provision of the law lose 20 percent each year from their grants, which underwrite programs to help troubled youth.
A Trial Court official said the age of Massachusetts courthouses is the reason for noncompliance.
Sixty-five percent of the courthouses in Massachusetts are more than 50 years old, Erika Gully-Santiago, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of the Trial Court, wrote in an e-mail in November.
State officials are working to solve the compliance issues by implementing such measures as noise-reducing shades in court lockups, staggering adult and juvenile arraignments, and video conferencing.
Some non-compliant courthouses, including Quincy, Barnstable Superior Court, and Falmouth District Court, are slated for renovations, Gully-Santiago wrote in the e-mail. Lowell Juvenile Court will be part of a new court facility set to be completed early this year, she wrote.
Josh Dohan, director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state public defender agency, also said that the age of Massachusetts’ courthouses contributes to the ongoing sight and sound violations.
“We have old courthouses, so it’s not the simplest problem to snap your fingers and fix,” said Dohan.
This story was a project of Professor Maggie Mulvihill’s data journalism course at Boston University. Boston University student Jackie Contreras contributed to this story.