Now that the Supreme Judicial Court has struck down life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders, implementing an earlier decision by the US Supreme Court, the state’s seven-member Parole Board will come under increased pressure. It will fall to the board to balance the public’s safety with the possibility of supervised release for convicted murderers who committed their crimes at a young age.
The change in policy is rooted in scientific evidence on the thinking patterns of juveniles whose actions are marked by "immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences." Such lack of impulse control is sufficient reason to rethink mandatory life sentences without parole for those convicted of murder under the age of 18. Anything less, according to the US Supreme Court, would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
In Massachusetts, more than 60 such cases are coming up for review early this year. Parole Board chairman Josh Wall offers an important reminder that the two basic prongs of parole suitability will apply regardless of the offender's age at the time of the crime: likelihood of committing a new offense and compatibility with the welfare of society. Teenagers convicted of murder will not suddenly skate out of prison. But those who have been imprisoned for a minimum of 15 years will have an opportunity to convince the Parole Board that they have changed and taken full responsibility for their actions.
At the same time, the fact patterns of the crimes must play a major role in the board's decisions. For example, Joseph Donovan has been imprisoned for 20 years under the state's joint venture law for the 1992 murder of an MIT student. Donovan, who was 17 at the time, didn't wield the murder weapon. He would be a reasonable candidate for parole. Not necessarily so, however, in cases of juvenile murderers whose crimes involved deliberate premeditation and extreme ferocity. What the court rulings require from the Parole Board is what the offender and the public alike deserve: fair, thorough assessments of each individual case.