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January 24, 2014

Notable early Massachusetts legislative response to elimination of juve LWOP

This Boston Globe article, headlined "Bill seeks at least 35 years for young killers," reports on a proposed statutory response to the recent ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (discussed here) which declared that that "all life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, whether mandatory or discretionary, violate art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights." Here are the basics:

A group of state lawmakers is proposing legislation that would require juvenile murderers to serve at least 35 years in prison before being eligible for parole, in direct response to a Supreme Judicial Court ruling that struck down life sentences without the possibility of parole for young killers.

The bipartisan bill would also require the state Parole Board, in deciding whether to grant early release, to consider whether a teenager convicted of murder had the maturity and sense of responsibility of an adult when carrying out the crime.

The bill was based on the recommendation last week of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association and was meant to fill a legal void left by the Supreme Judicial Court decision in December that eliminated sentences of life without parole for juveniles, even those convicted of the most horrendous crimes. “It’s about the injustice this would mean for the victims’ families,” said state Senator Barry Finegold, a Democrat from Andover and one of the sponsors of the legislation.

Senator minority leader Bruce Tarr, a Republican from Gloucester who cosponsored the bill, added that he has spoken with the families of murder victims and “their loss is no less because their suffering was at the hands of a juvenile.”...

According to state officials, approximately 66 prisoners who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles could now be eligible for parole. No hearings have been scheduled.

Joshua Dohan — director of the youth advocacy division for the state Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency — questioned how the state legislators reached the 35-year mark. Dohan pointed out that international standards, agreeing that teenagers have mindsets that are different from those of adults, call for juvenile sentences of, on average, no more than 20 years in prison, even for murder.

He said legislators are reacting quickly to a sensitive issue, but that they should slow down the process. He called for lawmakers to give judges discretion to hand out punishments, so they could consider a teenager’s culpability in a crime. “These are really important decisions that are going to affect the defendant, but also their families and the families of their victims,” he said....

Tarr and Finegold, flanked by a group of legislators who sponsored the bill, said the 35-year limit is a balance between holding a teenager accountable for his or her crimes and preserving the constitutional issues cited by the courts. Other states, reacting to the US Supreme Court decision, have passed a variety of laws: Wyoming, for instance, offers parole after 25 years.

“While it’s not an ideal situation, we hope this will bring a measure of comfort to the victims’ families,” said Finegold, who said he was working on behalf of Colleen Ritzer, the Danvers High School teacher who was killed in October, allegedly by a student.

A few other recent related posts:

January 24, 2014 at 11:13 AM | Permalink


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The problem with Rep. Tarr's statement is that, by the same token, the loss to the victim's family is no greater if the juvenile offender is ultimately paroled. The rubbish that passes for argument on this issue is amazing. Why in the world would a rational system allow for LWOP for juvenile offenders? Indeed, hardly any other system does. The more opportunities for further evaluation down the road, in light of later developments, the better. Logically speaking, the same should be true for adult offenders, as it is in most other countries. The contrary view is like saying, "I would rather make a final decision on the strength of my hand without seeing the two cards left to be flipped."

Posted by: Liberty Lawyer | Jan 24, 2014 2:25:07 PM

Liberty Lawyer --

What should be done with the sentence if evaluations over time show that the offender has become more manipulative, angry and aggressive?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 24, 2014 4:05:27 PM


You make a good point. That is a very good argument for indeterminate sentence. I would not object to say 10-20, 20 years-life, with new (negative) information fully fair game for determining that the offenders should servce the maximum sentence. So, accepting that it seems like we may agreement? You agree with the logic behind eliminiting LWOP, and I fully agree that taking into account post-sentencing developments is by no means a one-way ratchet. Sounds like a good basis for some consensus.

Posted by: Liberty Lawyer | Jan 24, 2014 4:44:58 PM

Judges who fix sentences at the outset based on risk are just guessing. No none can say today with certainty how dangerous someone will be five years from now.

Posted by: Tom McGee | Jan 24, 2014 6:23:21 PM

The contrary view is like saying, "I would rather make a final decision on the strength of my hand without seeing the two cards left to be flipped."

Wow. Maybe one day, if I try really really hard, I can come up with a line that good.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 25, 2014 12:33:16 AM

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