Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Gives Hope to Youths Sentenced to Die in Prison

By Edward Loughran
Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators
January 6, 2014

Three months ago, the Massachusetts State Legislature voted unanimously to raise the age of criminal court jurisdiction from 17 to 18. In an equally dramatic vote on Christmas Eve, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down life sentences without parole for adolescents (Commonwealth v. Brown and Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District).

The state’s highest court followed reasoning similar to that used by the United States Supreme Court on a death penalty case (Roper v. Simmons) and a life without parole case (Miller v. Alabama); they based their decision on current scientific research that lifelong imprisonment for youths is cruel and unusual because their brains are “not fully developed.”

The court also ruled that the Miller v. Alabama decision should be applied retroactively to every person who received an automatic life without parole sentence as a juvenile.  In a story the morning after the high court’s decision, the Boston Globe reported that there are currently 63 inmates in Massachusetts’ prisons who were sentenced as adolescents to life without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder.

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