When the US Supreme Court struck down mandatory life sentences without parole for those convicted of murder while younger than 18, it left Massachusetts legislators with a repair job. There are currently 62 juvenile offenders serving life without parole under Massachusetts’ now-unconstitutional law. So that courts don’t end up revising sentences in an ad hoc fashion, Beacon Hill needs to provide legislative guidance.
The Supreme Court decision, passed down last summer, has been interpreted differently by different states. California and North Carolina have moved to give juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole a chance for parole after 25 years. Florida’s courts, however, interpreted the Supreme Court decision as applying only to future cases. This month, a Middlesex County judge declined to apply a mandatory sentence of life without parole, on the grounds it was now unconstitutional. The judge, Kathe Tuttman, called on the Legislature to clarify the situation. It should.
The state needs to preserve judges’ discretion to sentence juvenile murderers to life without parole while also making clear that such a punishment is rarely warranted. Lesser sentences should be more common because juveniles are still developing mentally, a fact noted by the Supreme Court. Both science and common sense, the majority wrote, suggest that juveniles are characterized by “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” While it’s almost impossible to know whether any young criminal can be rehabilitated, courts should presume that a juvenile’s mind has the capacity to grow.
Meanwhile, the state should provide the 62 Massachusetts offenders who could appeal their sentences with the right to appointed counsel. Since the Supreme Court has decided that juvenile killers should be provided an opportunity to obtain release, they should also be provided with representation if they seek it.
Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr. argues that teenage killers should serve a minimum of 35 years. That’s too stiff in light of the Supreme Court ruling — a better path would be to follow California and North Carolina and apply a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years before parole eligibility. The two and a half decades would carry juvenile inmates beyond the ages when they’re most likely to commit violent crimes, according to Northeastern criminal law professor James Alan Fox.
The high court gave no specific guidance to states on how to implement its decision. Still, that is no excuse for prosecutors, legislators, and the defense bar to drag out the process of bringing the state into compliance with the new federal law. In the current state of flux, Massachusetts courts may produce a jumble of new sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, a result that wouldn’t be fair to anyone.