A group of state lawmakers is proposing legislation that would require juvenile murderers to serve at least 35 years in prison before being eligible for parole, in direct response to a Supreme Judicial Court ruling that struck down life sentences without the possibility of parole for young killers.
The bipartisan bill would also require the state Parole Board, in deciding whether to grant early release, to consider whether a teenager convicted of murder had the maturity and sense of responsibility of an adult when carrying out the crime.
The bill was based on the recommendation last week of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association and was meant to fill a legal void left by the Supreme Judicial Court decision in December that eliminated sentences of life without parole for juveniles, even those convicted of the most horrendous crimes.
“It’s about the injustice this would mean for the victims’ families,” said state Senator Barry Finegold, a Democrat from Andover and one of the sponsors of the legislation.
Senator minority leader Bruce Tarr, a Republican from Gloucester who cosponsored the bill, added that he has spoken with the families of murder victims and “their loss is no less because their suffering was at the hands of a juvenile.”
Sean Aylward and Kellie Schaffer, the siblings of Beth Brodie, a 15-year-old cheerleader from Groveland who was beaten to death by a romantically obsessed teenager, attended a State House press conference Thursday to speak in support of the bill. They said no family should have to suffer the possibility that the murderer of their loved one could be eligible for parole.
“In our wildest dreams, we had no idea we would be going through any of this,” Aylward said. “We were assured these killers would spend the rest of their lives in prison.”
Last month’s Supreme Judicial Court ruling was based on a US Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that found it was unconstitutional to hold teenagers to the same standards as adults.
The US court ruling mirrored other decisions that found that the brains of teenagers are not yet fully developed, that their thinking patterns are not the same as adults, and that they therefore should not receive the same punishment.
The Massachusetts high court applied the ruling retroactively, meaning it affects cases that have already been tried. The court determined that teenagers should be eligible for parole beginning after 15 years in prison, equal to the punishment an adult would receive if convicted of a lesser count of second-degree murder.
According to state officials, approximately 66 prisoners who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles could now be eligible for parole.
No hearings have been scheduled.
Joshua Dohan — director of the youth advocacy division for the state Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency — questioned how the state legislators reached the 35-year mark.
Dohan pointed out that international standards, agreeing that teenagers have mindsets that are different from those of adults, call for juvenile sentences of, on average, no more than 20 years in prison, even for murder.
He said legislators are reacting quickly to a sensitive issue, but that they should slow down the process. He called for lawmakers to give judges discretion to hand out punishments, so they could consider a teenager’s culpability in a crime.
“These are really important decisions that are going to affect the defendant, but also their families and the families of their victims,” he said.
Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said his group supports the proposed legislation. He argued that prosecutors already consider a teen’s culpability when deciding whether to charge someone as an adult, and at what level.
“I am pleased that the Legislature is taking up this measure, which the district attorneys believe to be fair, reasonable, and balanced,” he said.
Tarr and Finegold, flanked by a group of legislators who sponsored the bill, said the 35-year limit is a balance between holding a teenager accountable for his or her crimes and preserving the constitutional issues cited by the courts.
Other states, reacting to the US Supreme Court decision, have passed a variety of laws: Wyoming, for instance, offers parole after 25 years.
“While it’s not an ideal situation, we hope this will bring a measure of comfort to the victims’ families,” said Finegold, who said he was working on behalf of Colleen Ritzer, the Danvers High School teacher who was killed in October, allegedly by a student.
Philip Chism, 14, a freshman at the school, has been charged in her murder.