The state House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill that would make juveniles convicted in Massachusetts of first-degree murder eligible for parole after serving between 20 and 30 years of their sentence.
The measure, which now goes to the state Senate, passed by a margin of 128-16, according to House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s office.
“As public servants our most pressing responsibility is ensuring the safety of the public,” DeLeo said in a statement Wednesday. “Following state and federal court actions, the House felt it was necessary to create a strong framework for protecting our residents while accounting for the special circumstances associated with juvenile offenders. I am grateful for the input from the many committed organizations, families and legislators who helped craft this fair and balanced bill.”
A 2012 US Supreme Court decision deemed mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.
That ruling was followed by a December decision from the state Supreme Judicial Court that declared it was unconstitutional to imprison teens for life without granting them a chance to earn release. Previously, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder in Massachusetts were automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Under terms of the bill that the House passed on Wednesday, juveniles convicted of murders that involved premeditated malice or extreme atrocity or cruelty would be parole eligible after serving 25 to 30 years in prison.
Juveniles convicted of committing a first-degree felony murder between their 14th and 18th birthdays would be eligible after serving 20 to 25 years in prison. A felony murder charge can be brought if a slaying occurs during the commission of a serious crime, such as armed robbery.
Dawn Santino, whose sister Beth Brodie -- a 15-year-old cheerleader from Groveland -- was beaten to death by a teenager in 1992, criticized the effort by lawmakers to determine the length of time that juvenile killers should remain in prison.
“There isn’t a magic number,” Santino said. “I wish someone would put themselves in our shoes and imagine what we had gone through.”
Senate President Therese Murray’s office referred questions to Senator William N. Brownsberger, Senate co-chairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.
“The basic 20- to 30-year range for initial parole eligibility is something that I personally feel is reasonable,” Brownsberger said, adding that judges should have discretion regarding the number of years in that range that defendants are required to serve before seeking their release.
Governor Deval Patrick, who would have to sign the final version of the bill into law, told reporters that his administration had proposed a lower mandatory prison term before parole eligibility.
“I think we were in the 15 to 25 range, which was the default range, you remember, after the SJC’s decision when the default was back to the existing penalties for second-degree murder,” Patrick said, according to a transcript of his remarks.
He added, “We’re working with the Legislature to get a good compromise and I think it’s somewhere between, or among and between all of the different options that are out there: our proposal, the House, and the Senate’s.”
Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said prosecutors felt after the SJC decision that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder should serve 35 years before being allowed to petition for their release.
“Our position was 35 years is fair, reasonable, and balanced,” he said.
But Gail Garinger, the state’s child advocate, voiced concerns that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder would wait too long before becoming eligible for parole under the House proposal.
“It doesn’t give sufficient recognition to how juveniles are different from adults,” she said.
That argument is not always persuasive to prosecutors who speak with family members of victims, according to Gerard T. Leone Jr., a former Middlesex district attorney who oversaw the prosecution of John Odgren. Odgren was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to life in prison without parole for the fatal stabbing of a fellow student inside Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School three years earlier, when Odgren was 16.
“It doesn’t take many of those meetings with the survivors, especially the parents, to overcome the ... empathy that sometimes gets attached to a teenaged murderer,” said Leone, now a partner at Nixon PeabodyLaura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.