IN YOUR CORNER with KATY IVES – A Response to Court Rulings on Sentencing Juveniles Convicted of 1st Degree Murder

IVESBy: Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives – February, 2014

Senators Barry Finegold, (D-Andover), Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester), Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge), Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell), James Timilty (D-Walpole), Joan Lovely (D-Salem), Richard Ross (R-Wrentham), and Don Humason (R-Westfield), recently filed legislation to require juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to serve a minimum of 35 years before becoming eligible for parole.

I co-sponsored this legislation because this bill is an important legislative response to recent court rulings that will significantly impact the criminal justice system in Massachusetts. The legislative measure comes on the heels of a 2012 United States Supreme Court decision. Miller v. Alabama stated it is cruel and unusual punishment and therefor a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution for states to require juveniles who commit the crime of murder to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In response to that Supreme Court Decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in December of 2013 that all juveniles convicted of first-degree murder cannot receive life sentences without parole because such sentences for juveniles conflict with the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. Under these rulings, Massachusetts’ judicial system will no longer be able to utilize discretion in issuing life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders on a case-by-case basis based on the circumstances. Life-without-parole for juveniles who are convicted of first-degree murder is now off the table, no matter the mental state or degree of violence used in perpetrating murder. This direction is counter to previously enacted state laws allowing for juveniles 14 and older to be tried as adults because of the serious nature of the crimes.

In Massachusetts, an adult offender is anyone who has attained the age of 18 at the time of the murder. If convicted of first-degree murder, these adults may receive life imprisonment without parole. But, with the new rulings, those convicted of first-degree murder 17 or younger will now get parole eligibility after serving 15 years. Confusingly, that is the same standard for adults convicted of second-degree murder. This new standard will now mean that families of murder victims in cases where the offender was under the age of 18, needs to appear before a parole board to provide testimony and relive the painful details of their loves ones’ death every five years after the convicted individual has served fifteen years.

It is important to note that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did state that the Legislature has the opportunity to determine the sentencing standards for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, stating, “We leave to the sound discretion of the Legislature the specific contours of a new sentencing scheme for juveniles convicted of homicide crimes, including the length of any mandatory prison term or the minimum and maximum term of any discretionary sentencing or parole-eligibility ranges. We emphasize, however, that a constitutional sentencing scheme for juvenile homicide defendants must take account of the spirit of our holdings … and avoid imposing on juvenile defendants any term so lengthy that it could be seen as the functional equivalent of a life-without-parole sentence.” This aspect of the ruling is one factor for why the sentencing minimum of 35 years was set in the new bill. A longer minimum sentence would push up against the cruel and unusual punishment standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It is important for the Legislature to act on the opportunity detailed in the court’s decision. The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association asked the Legislature to file a bill specifically requiring juveniles who are tried as adults, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison to serve a minimum of 35 years before parole eligibility. State legislatures across the country are responding to similar state court rulings by instating minimum jail terms for juveniles before being eligible for parole.

Presently, 63 juveniles are in the Massachusetts prison system serving life sentences without parole. These cases will now have to go to the Parole Board for review.

In instances where perpetrators were juveniles, victims’ families will never have closure because parole for juveniles will always be a factor. However, this new bill asserts that there should at least be a minimum amount of time served for a first-degree murder conviction and begins an important policy discussion on what should be the minimum prison sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder before parole is a possibility. We must ensure that there is justice for murder victims and their families and that sentencing standards are not so skewed that an offender who murders at 18 can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and an individual who commits murder at 17 is eligible for parole after serving only fifteen years of their sentence.