Difficult Decisions: Statehouse Juvenile Justice Hearing

On the same day Senate Ways & Means Committee released its FY15 budget, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on Juvenile Justice issues.  At first glance, the Judiciary Committee’s hearing agenda appeared light, containing only ten bills.  Upon closer examination of the bills on the agenda, it was no surprise that the hearing room was packed.  The Essex and Suffolk County District Attorneys, a former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court, Senators Bruce Tarr, Barry Finegold, and Karen Spilka, Representative John Keenan, and the Chairman of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee took part in the hearing.   

In late 2013, the BBA’s Council unanimously approved a set of juvenile justice principles supporting the elimination of juvenile life without parole sentences.   Shortly thereafter, the SJC ruled in the Diatchenko case that such sentences were indeed unconstitutional.  Read more about the case and our position here

The SJC decision specifically calls for juvenile offenders to receive a “meaningful opportunity” for parole, but leaves it to the legislature to define that term.  Many of the bills at Wednesday’s hearing focused on different ways to define this statement.  There was plenty of debate at the hearing and various bills on the docket call for anywhere from 10 to 35 years before juveniles convicted of first degree murder become eligible for parole. 

The bills also include various provisions on parole considerations for these offenders.  Listening to the testimony, the following issues came to the fore for legislative consideration:

  • Fairness -  This was the most popular word of the hearing.  What length of time until parole eligibility is fair?  Legislators and panelists alike raised fairness considerations for victims and their families, society generally and specific communities, as well as the defendant.  There were multiple levels of fairness considerations for defendants.   Some testifiers argued for long periods of time due to the heinous nature of these crimes.  Others asked for relative leniency due to the defendant’s age, underdeveloped brains, and potential felony murder conviction.  Multiple testifiers noted that more than 70% of those currently serving juvenile life sentences had co-defendants, 75% of whom are adults.  Furthermore, 30% of those juveniles in prison for life were sentenced to felony-murder, meaning they accompanied another who did the actual killing, and in most cases the older person served a shorter sentence after accepting a plea bargain.
  • Confidence in the justice system -  Those advocating for longer parole eligibility terms touted their confidence in the justice system, stating that only juveniles who committed the most heinous crimes were sentenced to life and thus merited a longer time before parole eligibility.  Those advocating for shorter parole eligibility terms expressed confidence in the parole board’s ability to determine whether a person was adequately rehabilitated before potential release.  They stressed that parole eligibility did not equate to release.
  • Potential for rehabilitation –  Testifiers advocating for shorter parole eligibility terms cautioned against the mere warehousing of convicts, and expressed concern that juveniles sentenced to life with long periods without parole eligibility would suffer due to lack of program and rehabilitative opportunities (priority is given to those closer to potential release) and the challenge of staying in touch with family and friends for such an extended period of time, a parole board consideration.

These are not easy issues, and we will pay close attention as these bills progress through the legislative process.   

- Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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