For the youngest killers, a glimmer of redemption


THE MASSACHUSETTS criminal justice system has lurched between extreme leniency and draconian punishment in cases of children ages 14 to 16 who commit murder. Lawmakers and courts must find a way to protect the public while also offering the possibility of redemption for a child who takes a life. A new report from the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts shows how to restore the balance.

Before 1996, the harshest punishment for a juvenile murderer who was not transferred to adult court was incarceration until the age of 21. That policy seemed absurdly lenient to legislators at a time when leading sociologists warned of the coming of youthful “superpredators.’’ Those fears would prove overblown. But the law, like the public’s attitude, hardened. Today, a child as young as 14 charged with first-degree murder is automatically tried as an adult and, if convicted, receives a mandatory life sentence without parole.

Wisely, the report calls for treating juveniles convicted of first-degree murder like adults convicted of second-degree murder. That opens the possibility of parole after 15 years or in subsequent reviews. The Legislature should make this change.

Neither a bleeding heart nor a throw-away-the-key solution is the right response to murders by children. Some of the state’s 57 juvenile murderers serving life sentences won’t be rehabilitated as they mature. But some will. Medical experts point out that the adolescent brain differs profoundly from that of an adult, especially in decision-making and assessing risks. States with fair laws recognize the difference between youth and adulthood. They leave some possibility of redemption for young murderers. Massachusetts, however, is an outlier with its insistence on life without parole.

Thomas Grisso, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says it is difficult to categorize youthful murderers. They range from the impulsive to the cold-blooded. Grisso says he knows juvenile murderers who go on to lead law-abiding and productive lives. While it is difficult for him to predict early on who will desist from violence, it becomes clearer after a period of incarceration. “The system could provide a satisfactory and safe review,’’ he says.

Changing the law to allow such a review wouldn’t give a pass to youthful killers – just a long route home.