Extreme Sentencing for Youth in Massachusetts

On December 24, 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that a sentence of Juvenile Life without Parole (JLWOP) was unconstitutional. Currently, there are 64 people in Massachusetts who have received life without parole sentences for crimes that occurred before their eighteenth birthday. Before they were old enough to vote, buy cigarettes, or even serve on the juries that they appeared before, they had been sent to prison for the rest of their lives.

However, a particularly harsh trial and sentencing structure still exists in Massachusetts for these cases. Unlike nearly every other state in the country, Massachusetts requires a trial in the adult criminal court for anyone who is 14-years-old or older and is charged with murder, regardless of circumstance and without any mechanism for the case to be moved into the juvenile court system. If convicted of first degree murder, the current penalty calls for a range between 15 and 25 years before parole eligibility, determined by judicial discretion.

At this time, there are pending Massachusetts bills requiring a much longer sentence (one asks for 35 years) before parole eligibility, adding extremely difficult parole criteria. If such a bill were to pass the House, it could ultimately make law a sentencing structure very similar to JLWOP.

Today, many of those convicted under JLWOP have already served more than 20 years. Massachusetts must determine how to ensure that all youth convicted under JLWOP and have served the minimum sentence now have an opportunity for parole. There is no guarantee they will ever be released. But it is critically important that we provide an opportunity for every person to prove they are worthy of reentering society and becoming a contributing citizen. The Coalition is working to ensure that extreme sentencing does not continue for our youth. Click here to view our fact sheet and the Fair Sentencing Coalition's Principles.

Extreme sentencing for adolescents simply do not make sense--it ignores the science, global standards and national trends.

  • Adolescence is a time of rapid change and development. Most teens “age out” of adolescent mis-behavior and as a result, the majority of teens   involved in the criminal justice system are not involved in the criminal justice system as adults.

  • Youth are intellectually immature. They tend to be impulsive, susceptible to peer pressure and sensation-seeking. In high-pressure, heat of the moment situations, this immaturity can easily undermine their decision-making capacity.

  • Serious youth offenders are not all the same. Treating all offenders the same misses an opportunity to help them grow and change, and when appropriate, to have an opportunity to rejoin and positively contribute to society.

  • It is impossible to determine if a teenager will be a threat to society the rest of their life. Instead of telling a child that they are unsalvageable, we should implement an age-appropriate alternative that provides the possibility of parole after evaluating whether that person remains a threat to public safety as an adult.

  • Tools to assess the maturity of a person on an individual basis are not well developed. By providing the possibility of parole for young offenders, once they are fully developed, we create the opportunity to assess whether it is appropriate to release a grown adult who has served a long prison sentence, rather than trying to pass final judgment on an immature child.

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