By Jonathan Saltzman, Globe Staff | September 30, 2009
Despite its liberal reputation, Massachusetts has one of the harshest laws in the country for sentencing murderers as young as 14 to life in prison without parole, and many of the 57 people serving such mandatory sentences are first-time offenders, according to an advocacy group that wants them to become eligible for parole.
The Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, in what it said was the first comprehensive study of the 1996 law that resulted in such sentences for first-degree murder, found that a disproportionate percentage of the children locked up for the rest of their lives are black. Many of the offenders were convicted with adult codefendants, some of whom got milder sentences and have been freed.
The report, which is scheduled to be released today, followed a two-year review of most of the cases in which children ages 14, 15, and 16 were tried in adult court and sentenced to life. The study says that penalties for juvenile murderers were inadequate in the 1980s but that the Legislature went too far when it passed the current law in response to what the center describes as overblown fears of young super predators.
The group wants Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature to change the law to at least make juveniles convicted of first-degree murder eligible for parole after 15 years, as is true for people convicted of second-degree murder.
“Life-without-parole sentences may be an appropriate response to some adult crimes, especially in a state like Massachusetts that does not impose the death penalty,’’ the 33-page report said. “But the current law treats youths as young as 14 exactly like adults, regardless of their age, past conduct, level of participation in the crime, personal background, and potential for rehabilitation.’’
Geline W. Williams, executive director of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said yesterday she could not comment on the report until she reads it. But, “There’s no question that there are some juveniles who commit absolutely horrific crimes and have absolutely horrific records before they commit the ultimate crime of murder,’’ she said.
The two state lawmakers who chair the joint Committee on the Judiciary, Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty and Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, said they were willing to reexamine the 1996 law.
O’Flaherty said a few notorious crimes can often result in “legislative overreaction, and usually it takes a few years to see the unforeseen consequences of getting too tough, too quickly, and not being smart about getting tough.’’
Massachusetts is one of at least 39 states with youths serving sentences of life without parole; about 2,500 inmates around the country serve such sentences. But only Massachusetts and Connecticut give adult courts exclusive jurisdiction over murder cases against children as young as 14 and then impose a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for all first-degree murder convictions, regardless of the circumstances, the report said.
Several states are considering changing their laws to give youth offenders an opportunity to earn parole, in part because scientific research into the difference between the adolescent and adult brain shows that teenagers often cannot appreciate the consequences of their actions.
Last year, after citing similar neuroscientific evidence, Human Rights Watch called sentences of life without parole for juveniles “cruel, unfair, and unnecessary.’’
Massachusetts enacted the current law, partly in response to insufficient juvenile court sentences in the 1980s, when the harshest punishment for a juvenile who was not transferred to an adult court – even for murder – was incarceration until 21.
In the 1990s, a number of widely publicized juvenile murder cases prompted the Legislature to mandate that all juveniles charged with first- or second-degree murder be tried in adult court and that conviction for first-degree murder result in an automatic sentence of life without parole.
One of those cases involved Edward S. O’Brien, the 15-year-old who stabbed his best friend’s mother 98 times across the street from his Somerville home in 1995. After two years of hearings and intervention by the state’s highest court, O’Brien was tried as an adult and sentenced to life without parole.
The Children’s Law Center contends that crime rates do not justify such harsh sentences. Homicide rates for Massachusetts youth under 18 peaked in 1992.
Since 1998, the homicide rate among adolescents has been lower than it was 30 years ago.
The center, which reviewed in detail 46 of the 57 juvenile murderers serving life sentences without parole, said 41 percent had no prior record. Forty percent of the offenders had been convicted along with adult defendants, but many of the adults got lighter sentences.
“Frequently, the adults who are actually the primary actors [in the murders] and are in possession of the knowledge that matters are in a better position to offer information in exchange for better treatment from prosecutors,’’ said Lia Monahon, the lawyer for the center who wrote the report.
Blacks make up 47 percent of the juveniles sentenced to life without parole but account for less than 7 percent of children under 18 in Massachusetts, said the report. Monahon said the disparity could reflect bias in the criminal justice system.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org