Juvenile Life without Parole in Massachusetts

Under current Massachusetts law, a child as young as 14 can receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole. This is the harshest sentence available in Massachusetts for anyone, and is a sentence to die in prison. Currently, there are 62 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 were sent to prison for the rest of their lives.

A particularly harsh trial and sentencing structure 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 only penalty in our laws is Life without the Possibility of Parole.

Massachusetts has imposed a Life without Parole sentence more than 5 times as frequently as the rest of the Northeast combined! Life without Parole sentences are either prohibited for juveniles or have not been imposed in Maine, Vermont, New York and New Jersey. New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island have rarely imposed the unusually harsh sentence on people under age 18.

The sentencing scheme in Massachusetts is illegal! The United States Supreme Court determined that mandatory life without parole sentencing laws, like the law in Massachusetts, violates the US Constitution. For more on the Supreme Court decision, click here.

 

Life without Parole Sentences for adolescents simply do not make sense. Imposing Life without Parole on people under age 18 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.
  • Instead of leading the world on appropriate and effective youth justice, the United States stands only with Somalia and South Sudan in sentencing kids to a lifetime in prison without the possibility of parole. While states like Texas have abolished the practice, Massachusetts remains an outlier, with the harshest Juvenile Life without Parole laws in the country and in the world. 
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