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Updated legislation would restrict harsh sentences for youth

Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick proposed new legislation Monday that would end life without parole sentencing for juveniles between the age of 14 and 18 convicted of murder in the first degree.

Patrick’s proposal, An Act to Reform the Juvenile Justice System in the Commonwealth, gives juvenile murderers the chance to be tried without the immediate sentencing of life without parole, according to a Monday press release.

“It is time for the Commonwealth’s laws to reflect the value, in accord with the Supreme Court, that young people deserve every opportunity to rehabilitation and reform,” Patrick said in the release.

In the case of Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in June that sentencing a juvenile offender to mandatory life without parole for murder in the first degree was unconstitutional. A number of the 26 states that had instated mandatory life without parole for juvenile murderers have altered their laws in accommodation to the Supreme Court’s decision.

Massachusetts’s law states juveniles between the ages of 14 and 17 convicted of first-degree murder are to receive a mandatory sentence of juvenile life without parole. Patrick’s proposal extends the juvenile age limit to 14 through 18.

“Every violent felon should be held accountable for their actions, even youths,” Patrick said in the release. “But in sentencing, every felon’s circumstances should be considered, too, and youth itself is a special circumstance.”

Gail Garinger, the Massachusetts child advocate, said brain research has demonstrated that the adolescent brain differs in significant ways from the adult brain.

“The rationale in Miller [v. Alabama] acknowledges that adolescents are different from adults,” Garinger said in an email. “This Miller rationale is likely to greatly influence how we deal with youth throughout our educational, mental/behavioral health, child welfare and juvenile justice systems.”

According to studies used in Miller v. Alabama, the developmental characteristics of adolescents can lead to more impulsive behavior, an inability to understand consequences for actions and a blurred sense of self, Garinger said.

Patrick’s proposed legislation would allow the juvenile court to sentence individuals to either life with parole eligibility after 15 to 25 years served or to life without parole after considering several factors. These factors include the person’s immaturity, the consequences of the person’s criminal misconduct, if the person acted alone, the person’s intellectual capacity and the likelihood that the offender is capable of change and would benefit from rehabilitation, according to the release.

There are 62 JLWOP inmates in the state of Massachusetts. Patrick’s legislation would allow for re-evaluations of cases that may be affected by the ruling, according to the release.

Several inmates under the age of 18 at the time of the offense are working with counsel to determine how to approach the court for judicial reconsideration of their sentences, Garinger said.

Some groups announced they believe the governor’s proposal is a good start, but needs to go further.

The Massachusetts Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth said in a press release that the proposal does not guarantee a meaningful parole process for juveniles.

“Unlike several legislative proposals, the Governor’s proposal does not ensure a meaningful parole process because it does not provide for the right to an attorney or establish standards for the parole board to consider,” the release stated. “MAFSY is also disappointed that the Governor’s proposal does not eliminate the possibility for children and adolescents to be sentenced to die in prison.”

Massachusetts has 59 individuals sentenced as juveniles to die in prison, according to the MAFSY website.

MAFSY said it is seeking better alternatives than life in prison without parole for juveniles.

“MAFSY looks forward to working with the Administration and the Legislature to address this and other issues to make this legislation a comprehensive solution that will serve Massachusetts and become a model for the nation,” according to the MAFSY press release.

A number of residents of Boston said they are in favor of the proposal.

“I think it’s good that they’re trying to change it. Sometimes, juveniles do things that can be rectified by giving them proper training. If you give them the culture, knowledge and space, they can improve,” said Yash Sheh, a 23-year-old  doctor from Cambridge.

Judith Kysta, a 32-year-old research assistant in Brookline, said life without parole is not good for juveniles.

“It should be a case by case evaluation, and it’s good that Massachusetts is leaning towards that now,” Kysta said. “A general sentencing to convict all juveniles is unfair.”

Bob Savage, a 48-year-old data analyst from Watertown, said juveniles might not be aware of the gravity of their actions.

“It’d be nice if we could rehabilitate people who commit crimes, and certainly someone at 14 who commits murder may not know what they’re doing,” Savage said. “It’s a good change for Patrick.”

1 Response for “Updated legislation would restrict harsh sentences for youth”

  1. Audra Siu says:

    Thank you for publishing this article. Advocating now for our youth who can be rehabilitated more effectively outside of prison, demonstrates logical and responsible American citizenship. Scientific evidence supports that the human brain is not fully developed until the mid to late 20′s.[1] May your voice etch a stepping stone for Americans to create necessary change.

    [1. 6 facts about crime and the adolescent brain, Emily Kaiser, Minnesota Public Radio, November 15, 2012. http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2012/11/15/daily-circuit-juvenile-offenders-brain-development

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