Massachusetts requires that any person age 14 or older who is charged with any type of murder be treated as an adult and subjected to adult penalties. That’s a tough standard — too tough — and it took a US Supreme Court decision, based on scientific evidence of the lack of development of the adolescent brain, to force the state to give certain juvenile murderers even the barest chance at parole. This week, the Legislature and governor are wrangling over how many years such juvenile murderers should be forced to serve in prison before gaining access to the parole board. It behooves all parties to maintain a two-decade minimum sentence for the most depraved of the juvenile murderers, but to allow an earlier parole opportunity for those whose offenses are less serious.
The state House, Senate, and Governor Patrick are all on the right track in separating the cases into two types: those involving first-degree murder with premeditation or unusual cruelty, and those involving “felony murder,” in which a juvenile is merely participating in a crime — typically a robbery — when something goes wrong and someone ends up dead. An adolescent convicted of felony murder wasn’t the trigger person, and usually had no intention to kill. Many were street-gang members backing up older, more hardened criminals. Despite the extenuating circumstances, quite a few of these teenagers get sentenced to life imprisonment for having merely gone along with their fellow gang members in an attempted robbery that went awry. Their own lives end up ruined. The state ends up footing the bill for decades in prison. Meanwhile, given their age, many are good candidates to turn around their lives but see little chance that their efforts will be rewarded.
The bill approved last week by an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives doesn’t go far enough in giving these lesser offenders access to parole. It requires that first-degree murderers and those whose crimes involved excessive cruelty wait between 25 and 30 years before getting a chance at parole — about five years too many, but still a reasonable attempt to strike a balance between hardline demands for mandatory sentences and reformers’ desire for greater access to parole. But the bill also forces those convicted of felony murder, a far less culpable group, to wait between 20 and 25 years. Governor Patrick has endorsed earlier access for both groups. He should hold out for a 10- to 15-year minimum for those convicted of felony murder. After that, a parole board should be free to make its own assessment of the prisoner’s efforts to rehabilitate himself. Parole boards are naturally cautious about letting anyone out of prison, knowing that a repeat offense may be laid at their doorstep. But they nonetheless give prisoners as young as 14 a crucial hope that efforts to turn themselves around — to use their time in prison productively, to prepare for a job and better life — may someday bear fruit.