GLOUCESTER — Legislation filed Monday by Gov. Deval Patrick could eliminate mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder and would also give juvenile courts full jurisdiction over 17-year-old offenders.
But state Sen. Minority Bruce Tarr, who expressed support last week for juvenile legislation filed by fellow Cape Ann lawmaker Brad Hill, said the governor’s bill goes too far in protecting juvenile offenders at the expense of public safety.
The governor’s legislation comes in the wake of a Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Alabama, that has found life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional as the sentences inflict cruel and unusual punishment on the young people sentenced.
Massachusetts statutes, as they stand, mandate a punishment of life without parole for juveniles convicted of first degree-murder.
Patrick said the legislation, if passed, would support rehabilitation and reform for juveniles.
“Every violent felon should be held accountable for their actions, even youth. But in sentencing every felon’s circumstances should be considered, too, and youth itself is a special circumstance,” said Governor Patrick.
Patrick’s legislation would also pull juveniles accused of murder back into the juvenile court system for trials and would raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 17 to 18 in Massachusetts. The legislation would prevent criminal offenses for 17-year-olds from being released on public record. And, it would require parole eligibility after 15 years in prison for 14 to 18-year-olds sentenced to life in prison on a conviction of second-degree murder.
Hill, the Ipswich Republican whose district includes the town of Manchester, also filed legislation regarding sentencing juveniles earlier this month. Hill’s legislation would treat 17-year-olds in the state’s court system as juveniles, rather than adults, when charged with what he called “minor” criminal offenses.
In a Jan. 21 My View opinion piece published in the Times, Hill also noted that, under current and adult guidelines, a 17-year-old might agree to a guilty plea without consulting a parent. He also wrote that the bill would protect a 17-year-old from being saddled with having a criminal record at such a young age, and from having his or her name reported as part of the public record. Hill also said that trial in the juvenile system affords opportunities for teens to take advantage of juvenile services.
“To be successful, kids need things the adult system simply is not designed to deliver, including age-appropriate education, such as high school or vocational training and the special education services that so many young inmates need,” Hill wrote. “The Department of Youth Services is focused on maintaining family and community ties, which are correlated with positive outcomes for kids leaving the justice system.”
But a significant difference between Hill’s legislation and the legislation Patrick filed today is that Hill’s would only apply to “minor” cases, leaving authorities the option to still file adult charges against juveniles — as is the case now regarding felony crimes of violence.
Tarr, the Gloucester Republican who more or less supported Hill’s legislation, with a few questions, said Monday he believes Patrick’s legislation “crosses the line.”
Tarr pointed specifically to a section of Patrick’s legislation that would change the sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to a life sentence with parole eligibility after 15 to 25 years — or a life sentence without parole only after the consideration of many factors, including immaturity, intellectual capacity and the likelihood of the offender benefiting from rehabilitation — saying the possibility of parole after 15 to 25 years “crosses the line in terms of allowing too much leniency on those who have committed first-degree murder.”
Tarr said he agrees with the proposal to sentence minors in juvenile courts, but still feels first-degree murder earns a more harsh punishment.
“The goal should always be rehabilitation,” Tarr said, “but that goal should not be subordinate to public safety.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.