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Should Massachusetts eliminate life-without-parole sentences?

Read two views and vote in our online poll.


Derrick Washington

Serving life-without-parole sentence for 2007 first-degree murder conviction, currently at Souza Baranowski Correctional Center, in Shirley; founder, the Emancipation Initiative advocacy group

Derrick WashingtonEmancipation Initiative

Foreclosing any sense of hope for the more than 1,000 people currently serving life without parole sentences in Massachusetts prisons has an adverse effect not only on lifers, but on their families, and many urban communities.

Communities with the largest rates of incarceration are deprived of hope because they lose many people who could be valuable assets in helping young people avoid missteps. Having credible mentors who have actually made it out of prison channel youth violence into positive, pro-social activities is what my community needed and lacked. Just visit an African American Cultural Committee or Lifer’s Group meeting at MCI-Norfolk, and you’ll quickly become a believer. People released from life sentences are a unique population who are able to speak to future generations on how their decisions had grave consequences.

As a state, we must value all citizens and refuse to let the worst in some bring out the worst in us. We also must create a more equitable system. Equality is not John Martorano – a white man involved in Bulger’s Winter Hill gang – who admitted to killing 20 people and served only 12 years in prison, while there are many others who languish in Massachusetts prison cells indefinitely for their crimes. Retribution, especially when doled out unevenly, is neither justice nor accountability. Effectively ending another life through life-without-parole sentencing and making another family suffer after an offender has demonstrated growth, self-correction, and a wisdom for resolve is senseless.


In my view, the sentence of life without parole breathes life into modern-day slavery, if you define slavery as an incarcerated person existing indefinitely as chattel property of the state absent any chance of regaining their liberty. In 2020, we must eradicate slavery in all of its forms, including life without parole.


Abolishing life without parole would not open a floodgate for undeserving freedom-seekers to unleash bedlam upon society. Instead, it would allow those who have grown from their experiences to seek release, which if granted would be under strict monitoring conditions.

Striking all Massachusetts life-without-parole sentences would restore dignity throughout the state, strengthen communities, and promote equity within the criminal legal system without threatening public safety.


Timothy Whelan

State representative, Brewster Republican, retired State Police sergeant who supervised patrols throughout Southeastern Massachusetts, former Worcester County correctional officer

Timothy WhelanBruce DiLoreto

The Commonwealth has made great strides toward reasonable criminal justice reform and reducing our prison population. Our jail diversion programs for youthful and low-level offenders, and our efforts to provide mental health supports, job training, and re-entry programs for inmates have all helped reduce the state’s incarcerated population from 11,408 in 2008 to 8,692 in 2018. Our incarceration rate is the lowest out of all 50 states, but there is more to consider than this rate and these numbers.

The last execution in Massachusetts occurred in 1947, and the state’s death penalty law was struck down by the Supreme Judicial Court in 1984. What has remained the most severe punishment on our books is life without parole. This sentence is typically invoked in cases of first-degree murder — which are murders “committed with deliberately premeditated malice aforethought, or with extreme atrocity or cruelty.” Persons of good intentions are advocating that we do away with these sentences that deny the possibility of parole. But I believe the primary interest needs to be placed on the victims and the families who still grieve their loss. What about them?


I learned much from watching the family of Jeffrey Curley struggle with having to relive the nightmare of the Cambridge boy’s murder when one of his two convicted killers, somehow sentenced only to second-degree murder, came up for parole this year (the decision is still pending).

This was a case I worked in my previous career in law enforcement, and I have formed a bond with Jeffrey’s dad, Bob. What about them? Where is their justice? Where is the justice for the family of my friend Trooper Mark Charbonnier, murdered in a motor vehicle stop by a man previously paroled for participating in a beating death?

Where is the justice for all of these victims and their families? Their needs must always come first, and their justice often remains knowing the predator who victimized their loved one will never hurt another so long as the person remains behind bars. Let’s not victimize these grieving families further by making them relive their agony every time there is a parole hearing. What about them?

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.

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