Most juveniles convicted of first-degree murder would no longer automatically be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole under a bill Gov. Deval Patrick filed Monday.
Under the proposal, some offenders would be eligible for parole hearings 15 years into their sentence, according to a report Sunday in the Boston Globe. Others who participated in murders but did not perform the actual murder could get hearings sooner. Parole boards, however, would still be able to keep the offender behind bars for life.
The proposal comes in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Miller vs. Alabama) in which the court decided that the mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole is unconstitutional for defendants under the age of 18, according to a press release issued by Patrick's office Monday.
“Every violent felon should be held accountable for their actions, even youth. But in sentencing every felon's circumstances should be considered, too, and youth itself is a special circumstance,” Patrick said in a statement released Friday. “It is time for the Commonwealth's laws to reflect the value, in accord with the Supreme Court, that young people deserve every opportunity for rehabilitation and reform.”
The issue recently arose with Benjamin Peirce, a 19-year-old Newton man convicted in the killing of Waltham resident Adam Coveney. Peirce's attorney argued Peirce should not have been automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole because he was 17 when Coveney was murdered.
Peirce eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and firearms charges and was sentenced to 17 - 20 years in state prison for the manslaughter charge and 4 - 5 years for the firearm charge.
The plan does not address whether sentences for those already serving life in prison without parole would be impacted, according to the Globe.
Also, under the plan, the definition of an adult in the criminal court would be 18, rather than 17, Patrick's press release said. This would eliminate the jurisdiction of the Superior Court and District Court over 17-year olds.
State lawmakers have proposed other changes, including one that would keep teenage killers in prison for at least 35 years, according to the Globe.
Defense attorneys who defend teenage killers have cited increasing evidence their clients are not able to completely understand their offenses as one reason for the proposed change, according to the Globe.
However, prosecutors, including Middlesex County District Attorney Gerry Leone, are concerned that easing the rules would not properly reflect the seriousness of the offense.
Leone told the Globe that “those who kill with deliberate premeditation or extreme atrocity and cruelty," should serve at least 35 years, Leone said in a statement to the Globe.
“For a 15-year-old killer, parole eligibility at age 50 limits the risk of recidivating and still provides a life expectancy of 20 years, where the victim has none," Leone told the Globe.
The full press release from the governor's office, including specifics on the legislation, is included below:
GOVERNOR PATRICK FILES LEGISLATION TO CREATE FAIRER JUSTICE SYSTEM FOR JUVENILES
Holds youth accountable and provides path for rehabilitation
BOSTON – Monday, January 28, 2013 – Governor Deval Patrick today filed, “An Act to Reform the Juvenile Justice System in the Commonwealth,” legislation that will create a fairer justice system for the Commonwealth’s youth by extending the juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 years old to 18 years old and eliminating mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of first degree murder.
“Every violent felon should be held accountable for their actions, even youth. But in sentencing every felon's circumstances should be considered, too, and youth itself is a special circumstance,” said Governor Patrick. “It is time for the Commonwealth's laws to reflect the value, in accord with the Supreme Court, that young people deserve every opportunity for rehabilitation and reform.”
The Governor’s legislation comes on the heels of the United States Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory criminal sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole, imposed on defendants who were less than 18 when they committed their crimes, were unconstitutional.
“Governor Patrick has proposed this legislation to create an improved justice system for our youth and for our Commonwealth,” said Massachusetts Child Advocate Gail Garinger. “As every parent knows, teenagers are different from adults – they can act in the moment, be impulsive, and be unduly influenced by their peers and by adults. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, Massachusetts judges must take these differences into account in sentencing, even when the adolescent has committed the worst of acts – the taking of another’s life. It is wrong to give up on any young person without considering the circumstances of his crime, his life experiences, and without asking whether he is capable of being rehabilitated before we sentence him to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
"Governor Patrick's legislation does more than simply comply with the Supreme Court's Miller decision," said Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral. "The bill retains the possibility of life without parole for the worst offenders, but also brings balance to juvenile justice by providing sentencing guidance to the courts for teenagers convicted of first degree murder ensuring appropriate custody, counseling and educational opportunities are available to those who may eventually renter society."
The Governor’s legislation recognizes the importance of providing juveniles with age-appropriate resources for rehabilitation. It builds on established research that proves an adolescent brain affects behavior and judgment, but that rehabilitation is possible. Fair treatment of juveniles requires both holding them accountable for their actions and ensuring the highest degree of public safety in order to keep the Commonwealth’s neighborhoods safe and secure.
“Governor Patrick’s leadership on this issue is critical and I applaud him for taking on criminal justice reform so early in the session,” said Representative Linda Dorcena Forry. “We need a holistic approach to crime reform. Criminal proceedings are complex—there are many factors that need to be taken into consideration including age—and our judges must have the ability to make the best decision for each case.”
“I applaud Governor Patrick for his commitment to create a more fair justice system in the Commonwealth for juveniles,” said Representative Kay Khan. “Extending the Juvenile Court’s jurisdiction from the 17th birthday to the 18th birthday is legislation I filed for the past two sessions and is included in the Governor’s bill. I am optimistic for this legislation as it has already gained significant support. I also look forward to partnering with the Governor and the Legislature on juvenile sentencing issues.”
Massachusetts statutes currently mandate life without parole for juveniles convicted of first degree murder, and the Governor’s legislation is necessary in order to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision.
Specifically, the legislation will:
- Address the Supreme Court’s holding in Miller v. Alabama by eliminating mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles between the ages of 14 and 18 adjudicated as youthful offenders for first-degree murder. It will allow the juvenile court to sentence these individuals to either life with parole eligibility after 15 to 25 years served, or to life without parole after first considering several factors, such as the person’s immaturity; the person’s ability to appreciate the risk associated with, and consequences of, the person’s criminal misconduct, and whether the person acted alone; the person’s intellectual capacity; the likelihood that the youthful offender is capable of change and would benefit from rehabilitation; and any victim impact statement.
- Allow a juvenile adjudicated as a youthful offender for murder in the first degree under the felony-murder rule or on a theory of joint venture, to be parole eligible in after 10-25 years served, or sentenced to life without parole after considering the mitigating factors, including the extent of the juvenile’s participation in the crime.
- Return the trial of juveniles accused of murder to the juvenile court, to better serve young offenders with services and oversight that are appropriate for their age.
- Raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 by increasing the maximum age for jurisdiction of the juvenile court and Department of Youth Services (DYS), in most cases raising the age limit from 17 to 18 years, and eliminating the jurisdiction of the Superior Court and District Court over 17 year-olds.
- Require prosecutors to notify the court and the juvenile during or before the pretrial conference if they intend to seek a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile accused of first degree murder.
- Require that prior to sentencing, the judge must hear evidence regarding the aggravating and mitigating factors and may only enter a sentence of life without parole if the judge finds, in writing, that there is clear and convincing evidence that the sentence is necessary for the safety of the public, is in the interest of justice and a lesser sentence would not satisfy these interests.
- Require that a juvenile between the ages of 14 and 18 adjudicated as a youthful offender for second-degree murder be sentenced to life with parole eligibility after 15 years served.
- Amend the definition of CORI to exclude adjudications concerning juveniles under the age of 18, increased from age 17.
- Allow for delinquent juveniles committed to DYS until age 18 to voluntarily accept DYS post-discharge transitional services until age 21 and permit youthful offenders committed to DYS until age 21 to voluntarily receive DYS post-discharge transitional services until age 23.