MONDAY’S 5-4 Supreme Court decision disallowing mandatory life sentences without parole for defendants convicted of murder perpetrated before their 18th birthday moves us significantly closer to a rational system for punishing young offenders. It provides hope for hundreds of prisoners around the country, including more than 60 in Massachusetts, who until now saw no chance of ever walking free.
Massachusetts is one of 28 states affected by the court’s decision in not considering mitigating factors and special circumstances that might warrant parole eligibility. Belying the undeserved reputation for being soft on crime, the Commonwealth arguably has the nation’s stiffest sanction for juvenile murder. Anyone as young as 14 charged with murder is automatically tried as an adult, and if convicted of first-degree murder, receives a mandatory sentence of life without parole.