As part of an overhaul of the juvenile justice system, Gov. Deval Patrick plans to file legislation Monday to prohibit mandatory life sentences without parole for youthful offenders convicted of first degree murder.
The proposal is a response to the Supreme Court decision over the summer that ruled such mandatory sentences violate the Constitution’s Eight Amendment restricting cruel and unusual punishment.
Patrick is also proposing to extend the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court and the Department of Youth Services to 18-year-olds, and would eliminate the Superior Court and District Court’s jurisdiction over 17-year-olds.
In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court found that mandatory life sentences without parole for youthful offenders violated the Constitution. The case involved 14-year Evan Miller and another teen who got into a fight with a neighbor. The teens beat the man with a baseball bat and set fire to his trailer, and he died of smoke inhalation.
Patrick has been seeking to reform the state’s sentencing laws for some time, pursuing a package of criminal justice reforms last session that would have eliminated some mandatory minimums for drug offenses.
While a scaled back law eventually passed the Legislature stiffening penalties for repeat violent offenders, the governor sought a commitment from House and Senate leaders to return to sentencing reform over the next two years. The Legislature also overruled Patrick when he attempted to amend the bill by asking for limited judicial discretion to give certain three-time violent felons a chance at parole.
The governor’s push for juvenile sentencing law changes to start the two-year session is likely to be the first of many ideas from Patrick to reform sentencing laws, and the ban on mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles is necessary, according to the administration, to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision.
The bill would eliminate the state’s mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles aged 14-18 convicted of first-degree murder. Judges could either sentence those offenders to life with parole eligibility in 15 to 25 years, or life without parole after considering factors such as a defendant’s maturity, prospects for rehabilitation, and whether the youth acted alone.
If the court wants to take away parole eligibility for a juvenile defendant, the judge would need to indicate in writing why the sentence is necessary for public safety, and why a lesser sentence would not suffice.
Also under the bill, a juvenile convicted under the felony-murder rule, which allows anyone involved in a felony to be held responsible for any deaths that occur, would become parole eligible in 10 to 25 years, or be sentenced to life without parole after a judge considers the extent of the juvenile’s participation in the crime.
“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,” said Massachusetts Child Advocate Gail Garinger, in support of the governor’s proposal.
“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,” Garinger said.
The legislation also proposes to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18, and to require prosecutors to declare 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.
Youth aged 14 to 18 and convicted of second-degree murder would be sentenced to life and become eligible for parole after 15 years, under Patrick’s proposal.
By reforming the sentencing laws and expanding the reach of the Department of Youth Services and the Juvenile Court to 18-year-olds, the administration says it is attempting to provide youth with “age-appropriate resources for rehabilitation.”
To that end, the bill would also allow juvenile delinquents to voluntarily accept DYS post-discharge services until they turn 21 and youthful offenders could voluntarily receive the same services until they turn 23.