Massachusetts Appeals Court tells 12-year-old boy: Get a job to pay for ‘tagging’ neighbors’ homes

A Western Massachusetts boy who spray-painted graffiti onto his neighbor’s homes as an 11-year-old was ordered Wednesday to get a job so he can pay the victim’s $1,000 restitution – and learn a life lesson at the same time.

The boy, who was identified in the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruling by the pseudonym of “Avram,” had previously had charges of juvenile delinquency put on hold for one year in return for his promise to make restitution to his Easthampton neighbors.

After he failed to pay a single penny within that year, Juvenile Court Judge James G. Collins extended the now-12-year-old boy’s probation for four years and ordered him to get a job – an order defense attorney Craig R. Bartolomei said was contrary to juvenile law and to the reality of society today.

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“The state itself limits what they [12-year-olds] can do,’’ Bartolomei said in a telephone interview. “They can be actors, with a permit. They can work a farm, and they can basically deliver newspapers. But kids don’t deliver newspapers any more.’’

“That’s what I keep coming back to,” he added. “Where does a 12-year-old find work to pay this off? It’s not going to happen.’’

Bartolomei also said forcing his client to find a job, given the child’s age, could put him in danger if he goes out and looks for work.

But the three-judge panel of the appeals court, in a ruling written by Judge William J. Meade, said the boy could find work literally outside his front door.

The boy could “earn money by obtaining a paper route, mowing lawns, raking leaves, shoveling snow, baby-sitting, delivering groceries, or by recycling items upon which a deposit had been paid” and state law permits children as young as nine years old the freedom to work as a newspaper delivery person, Meade wrote.

Meade emphasized the judge was not driven by dollars in extending the boy’s probation until the restitution is made.

“When he extended the period of probation, the judge properly sought to teach the juvenile one of life’s primary lessons: he is responsible for the actions he takes,’’ Meade wrote. “Such an order not only provided an opportunity to build the juvenile’s character and integrity, but also to promote his life as a law-abiding citizen. The judge’s order had the added benefit of instilling in the juvenile the important values of respect for others (as well as their property) and a basic understanding of the value of work.”

Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan, said the court made the right call not only in the case of the Easthampton tagging victims, but also for the thousands of people statewide who sustain property damage at the hands of errant juveniles.

He also said the boy, who does not have any mental or physical limitations, will benefit from learning that he is responsible for himself and the actions he takes.

“He had two strong arms and two strong legs to make his way over to his neighbor’s house,’’ said Sullivan. “He can use those two strong arms and two strong legs to pay restitution.’’

Sullivan added that if the boy cannot find anyone to hire him, then the boy should contact his juvenile diversion program “and we’ll hook him up.’’

Bartolomei, who was appointed by the juvenile court to represent the boy, said he was considering an appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest, if his client agrees. Bartolomei said if no appeal is undertaken, his client would have to pay the restitution, which does not include interest.

Elaine Dudkiewicz owns one of the homes targeted by the boy. In her case, he used red spray paint on their newly-sided garage.

“I was pretty upset and my husband, especially, was upset,’’ she said in a telephone interview. “We just put siding on and we had to get it replaced.’’

The court said Elaine’s husband did the repair work himself and that the youth owes them about $300, money she said she has never really expected to see. She agreed with the ruling by the appeals court.

“He should have to do something,’’ she said. “He should take some responsibility for what he did.’’