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He killed at age 18. Does he deserve a second chance?

State’s highest court tackles issue of life without parole for 18- to 20-year-olds.

At his trial in 2013, Sheldon Mattis looked over his shoulder after the guilty verdict was read.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Sheldon Mattis was 18 years old on a September day in 2011 when 16-year-old Jaivon Blake was shot to death on Geneva Avenue. Mattis was convicted of first-degree murder while a codefendant, Nyasani Watt, was convicted of firing the shots that actually killed Blake.

While both teenagers ended up in state prison with life sentences, Watt may someday have a life outside prison gates for one simple reason: he was 10 days shy of his 18th birthday when the killing occurred. Mattis, eight months older than his codefendant, will never have that chance — not unless the state’s highest court gives him one.


The Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments Monday in two cases aimed at ending sentences of life without the possibility of parole for “late adolescents” — those 18, 19, and 20 years old. The companion case involves Jason Robinson, who was 19 when police say he was involved in an armed robbery in which a Brighton business owner was shot and killed. Lawyers for Mattis and Robinson will argue that such sentences for young offenders violate the state’s constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Massachusetts legal system has been moving slowly but steadily down a path that recognizes what most parents know first-hand — that the still-developing brains of teens make them more prone to high-risk, impulsive behavior. Taking that into consideration, the US Supreme Court banned automatic life terms for those under the age of 18 in 2012. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court followed suit in 2013, banning life without parole sentences for juveniles; about two dozen other states have also banned the sentences.

But neuroscientists argue there’s nothing magical about one’s 18th birthday. In fact, there’s a growing body of scientific evidence that “personality, behavior, and the brain itself all continue to change and grow markedly through late adolescence,” according to an amicus brief filed by a group of neurologists and psychologists in the two cases now before the SJC.


“The evidence further indicates that most late adolescents [defined as 18 to 20 years old] will naturally grow out of this phase and fundamentally change their behavior, including through neurological growth that enhances their capacity for reasoned decision-making under stress and future-looking orientation, and are uniquely amendable to rehabilitation,” the group argues in its brief.

If the court agrees with that premise then locking an 18-year-old away for life would indeed be cruel and unusual punishment.

A group of 23 retired judges, including several former SJC justices, former federal court judges, and the Boston and Massachusetts Bar Associations, agreed. In the group’s filing with the court, contributors noted that based on their experience “on the bench and in practice, late adolescents are emotionally, physically, cognitively, and behaviorally indistinguishable from juveniles,” and therefore, “warrant the same protection against a sentence of life without parole as their under-18 counterparts.”

Some 203 current inmates in state prison, among them Mattis and Robinson, would be affected if the court agrees. No, the cell doors would not automatically swing open, but they would become parole eligible after serving 15 years of their sentences. And, as the amicus brief filed by the Boston University Center for Anti-Racist Research (and others) points out, Black people are serving life without parole sentences for offenses committed between the ages of 18 and 20 at 16 times the rate of white people.


Going forward, the high court, if it agrees with the premise, could go one of two ways — it could simply extend the ban on life without parole sentences for those ages 18-20. Or it could require a second-round sentencing hearing to determine if indeed the offender is “permanently incorrigible,” a route the group including retired judges argues would “lead to disparate and arbitrary sentencing.” And as the statistics show, there’s been enough of that already.

This year, as in years past, legislation has been filed to change the state’s sentencing system to allow most prisoners serving life without parole to become parole eligible after serving 25 years. Other proposals are aimed at providing parole opportunities for aging inmates, in this case for those over age 55.

Another good approach would be to raise the age limit for juvenile offenders to 20, as considered by a special legislative task force in 2020. But that idea has yet to find widespread support on Beacon Hill.

While California has passed bill after bill to broaden parole eligibility for young and aging offenders, the Massachusetts Legislature remains stuck in neutral.

Which explains how the Supreme Judicial Court has become the last, best option for fixing a criminal justice system that cries out to have the law at long last follow the science when it comes to justly dealing with young offenders.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.