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Patrick seeks to modify juvenile sentencing laws

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In what is considered to be a key step in creating a fairer system of justice for juveniles, Gov. Deval Patrick filed legislation that would extend the juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 years old to 18 years old and eliminate mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.

“Every violent felon should be held accountable for their actions, even youth,” Gov. Patrick stated in a release. “But in sentencing, every felon’s circumstances should be considered, too, and youth itself is a special circumstance. It is time for the Commonwealth’s laws to reflect the value, in accord with the Supreme Court, that young people deserve every opportunity for rehabilitation and reform.”

The Governor’s legislation comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory criminal sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole imposed on defendants who were less than 18 when they committed their crimes were unconstitutional.  

“Gov. Patrick’s leadership on this issue is critical and I applaud him for taking on criminal justice reform so early in the session,” said Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry. “We need a holistic approach to crime reform.  Criminal proceedings are complex — there are many factors that need to be taken into consideration including age — and our judges must have the ability to make the best decision for each case.”

Massachusetts statutes currently mandate life without parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, and the Governor’s legislation is necessary in order to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision.

Specifically, the legislation will:

•  Address the Supreme Court’s holding in Miller v. Alabama by eliminating mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles between the ages of 14 and 18 adjudicated as youthful offenders for first-degree murder. 
It will allow the juvenile court to sentence these individuals to either life with parole eligibility after 15 to 25 years served, or to life without parole after first considering several factors, such as the person’s immaturity; the person’s ability to appreciate the risk associated with, and consequences of, the person’s criminal misconduct, and whether the person acted alone; the person’s intellectual capacity;  the likelihood that the youthful offender is capable of change and would benefit from rehabilitation; and any victim impact statement.

•  Allow a juvenile adjudicated as a youthful offender for murder in the first degree under the felony-murder rule or on a theory of joint venture, to be eligible for parole after 10-25 years served, or sentenced to life without parole after considering the mitigating factors, including the extent of the juvenile’s participation in the crime.

• Return the trial of juveniles accused of murder to the juvenile court, to better serve young offenders with services and oversight that are appropriate for their age.

•  Raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 by increasing the maximum age for jurisdiction of the juvenile court and Department of Youth Services (DYS), and eliminating the jurisdiction of the Superior Court and District Court over 17-year-olds.

•  Require prosecutors to notify the court and the juvenile during or before the pretrial conference if they intend to seek a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile accused of first-degree murder.

• Require that prior to sentencing, the judge must hear evidence regarding the aggravating and mitigating factors and may only enter a sentence of life without parole if the judge finds, in writing, that there is clear and convincing evidence that the sentence is necessary for the safety of the public, is in the interest of justice and a lesser sentence would not satisfy these interests.

• Require that a juvenile between the ages of 14 and 18 adjudicated as a youthful offender for second-degree murder be sentenced to life with parole eligibility after 15 years served.

• Amend the definition of Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) to exclude adjudications concerning juveniles under the age of 18, increased from age 17.

• Allow for delinquent juveniles committed to DYS until age 18 to voluntarily accept DYS post-discharge transitional services until age 21 and permit youthful offenders committed to DYS until age 21 to voluntarily receive DYS post-discharge transitional services until age 23.

 Material from the Governor’s Office contributed to this report.