Juvenile Justice

Top Massachusetts court vacates 90-day contempt sentence for teen who called judge B-word

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A 16-year-old girl who called a judge a “dumb, white b- - - -” was wrongly sentenced to 90 days in youth services for contempt of court by the judge she insulted, according to an April 12 decision by the top court in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court vacated the contempt judgment, saying the judge abused her discretion by not taking the teenager’s status as a juvenile into account. The court also said the judge failed to follow the procedure for contempt matters.

WCVB and the Boston Herald have coverage.

The teen was before Judge Kathryn A. White of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, in 2017 for running away from a group home run by the Department of Children and Families and for cutting off her GPS monitor. Her actions had violated the conditions of her pretrial release on a previous charge.

The girl asked White for “[one] more chance to go back to the program” where she had been living, but the judge instead set bail at $1. The bail was in effect a detention order because the DCF does not pay bail for juveniles.

The girl responded this way: “This is my first case. Like, I don’t understand why I can’t get sent back to my program. This is my first case. … My first case, girl. You don’t even know me like that. You don’t know me, girl. Give me the f- - -ing papers. F- - - you. … B- - - -, f- - - you. … And DCF ain’t paying my bill, you dumb, white b- - - -. … You dumb b- - - -.”

White found that the girl’s remarks were contemptuous and appointed a lawyer for her. The girl apologized, but her lawyer did not present evidence. White found the girl in contempt and ultimately sentenced her to 90 days with the Department of Youth Services, the maximum possible sentence.

The girl wrote a letter of apology, but the judge did not change her mind.

“Saying you’re sorry … doesn’t mean that the sentence I’ve imposed goes away,” White said. “You have to understand that when you speak like that it has consequences. And sometimes those consequences are negative consequences.”

White later resentenced the girl to time served, which amounted to 75 days in prison, according to WCVB.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said the girl’s comments “required a response from the judge.” But the 90-day sentence “was outside reasonable alternatives” considering the circumstances of the case, the juvenile’s characteristics and her apology to the judge, the court said.

The court said the juvenile court system is geared toward the rehabilitation of delinquent children, and children are less deserving of the most severe punishments.

Although judges can sanction a child for contempt, “a judge should take a child’s characteristics into account when imposing a criminal contempt sentence,” the court said.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court noted that nothing in the record indicated that the judge was motivated by bias, so there is no need to consider the juvenile’s argument about implicit bias.

The court said it did, however, want to reemphasize its remarks from a June 2020 letter to the state bar and judiciary.

“As judges, we must look afresh at what we are doing, or failing to do, to root out any conscious and unconscious bias in our courtrooms; to ensure that the justice provided to African Americans is the same that is provided to white Americans; to create in our courtrooms, our corner of the world, a place where all are truly equal,” the June 2020 letter said.

A lawyer who represented the teen in her appeal, Joe Schneiderman, told the Boston Herald that the decision is “a banner, positive, landmark win for children throughout the commonwealth.”

“Children in juvenile court shall not be treated as criminals,” he said.

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