The state's highest court, in what one legal official called "a ground-breaking case," ruled Monday that prisoners who committed murder as juveniles and are seeking parole are entitled to a lawyer at public expense and may also appeal parole denials.
In a 5-2 ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court held that juvenile homicide offenders are entitled to special protections at parole hearings to make sure they receive a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."
"A parole hearing for a juvenile homicide offender serving a mandatory life sentence involves complex and multifaceted issues that require the potential marshalling, presentation, and rebuttal of information derived from many sources," the court wrote in a 37-page decision. "An unrepresented, indigent juvenile homicide offender will likely lack the skills and resources to gather, analyze, and present this evidence adequately."
The decision built upon a 2013 SJC ruling that struck down life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, finding that children are "constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing."
The ruling was retroactive, and a number of inmates who were juveniles at the time they committed murder have since received parole. Juveniles convicted of first- and second-degree murder are now eligible for parole after serving 15 years in prison.
Monday's decision went further, saying those juveniles deserve special protections at parole hearings that are not given to other prisoners. For instance, juvenile offenders can petition a judge to authorize funds for expert witnesses to "explain the effects of the individual's neurobiological immaturity and other personal circumstances" at the time of the crime, the decision read.
Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said the court ruled that juvenile offenders are entitled to "special constitutional safeguards" that no other state has recognized.
"These are protections no other state has afforded this class of defendants," he said. "It's a ground-breaking case."
Currently, the state's Parole Board allows attorneys to represent inmates serving life sentences at their hearings, but there is no requirement. The ruling applies to juveniles convicted of first- and second-degree murder.
The decision drew sharp dissents from Justices Robert Cordy and Francis Spina, who said the court overstepped its bounds.
"By imposing today these additional procedural protections, the court reaches beyond the judicial function of sentencing to regulate the conduct of the initial parole hearing itself," Spina wrote, adding that the state Legislature "never intended such a relationship between sentence and parole."
Cordy said the court had intruded upon the executive branch of the government and that there was no "demonstrated need" for a special parole and appeal process.
The SJC also ruled that offenders should have access to specialists to testify on their behalf, saying their help "may be crucial to the juvenile's ability to obtain a meaningful chance of release."
In addition, prisoners may appeal parole denials to Superior Court, though the high court specified that a judge may not reverse Parole Board decisions. The Superior Court can, however, order a rehearing.
The Parole Board was reviewing the high court's decision Monday to determine its impact, a spokesman said.
Naoka Carey, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a statewide advocacy group, said the decision reflects a growing acceptance that juvenile offenders should be treated differently from adults.
"We think it's a strong decision," she said. "They want to make sure the process adequately takes into consideration the factors that are related to being a young person."
Lisa Hewitt, general counsel for the state's public defender agency, which represented juvenile offenders in the SJC case, said her office was thrilled by the ruling.
"The court continues to find that kids are constitutionally different than adults," she said.
In 2012, the US Supreme Court struck down automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles, ruling that young offenders have "diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform."
The following year, the Massachusetts high court banned life sentences without parole for juveniles. That landmark ruling rose from a challenge from Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 when he fatally stabbed a man in Kenmore Square in 1981.
Last fall, he was granted parole in a unanimous decision.
"His violent acts were unplanned and impulsive in a manner that was likely connected to his age and stage of development," Parole Board chairman Josh Wall wrote then.