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On Juvenile Lifer Sentencing, Will Massachusetts Do the Right Thing?

There’s a crisis in juvenile justice in Massachusetts.

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There’s a crisis in juvenile justice in Massachusetts. The Senate is poised to pass its version of Bill H.4184, which aims to keep juveniles who are sentenced to first-degree murder locked up for 20 to 30 years – before they get a shot at parole. The bill, which passed the Democratic House on June 18 with a stunning 129-to-16 vote, would set back the state’s leadership on youth justice. Massachusetts is known for its excellent statewide juvenile courts, well-trained judges, a juvenile defense bar and one of the best Department of Youth Services in the country. But this bill is packed with ominous new measures that threaten the spirit of recent state and federal court rulings calling for meaningful opportunities for juveniles to transform.

It will be up to a conference committee to reconcile versions of the bill and then, onto Gov. Deval Patrick to suggest changes, sign this bill into law, or do the unexpected -demand it go back to the drawing board. Already there is talk of litigation if this bill becomes law.

While states differ on if, and when, they allow parole eligibility for life sentences, there is one thing juvenile lifers have in common: Many won’t plea-bargain for lesser sentences because it seems like 15 years is forever to their young minds, and they’d rather take their luck with a jury. Thus, at 14 or 15 or 16, they end up with life sentences and serve more years than they’ve lived before they can petition for parole.

The Massachusetts bill would not only affect first-degree lifers sentenced as juveniles, but in its current form, it would demand that any lifer denied release by the Parole Board on their first go-around would have to wait 10 more years before they could petition again. In 2013, more than 78 percent of lifers convicted of second-degree murder were denied parole first time around. If this bill is passed into law, most juvenile first-degree lifers would get a real shock – a de-facto life sentence without parole. Some in the state are saying the bill would violate the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights for “inflicting cruel and unusual punishment.” The current maximum parole setback is five years.

Legislators are calling for these unforgiving measures in spite of the fact that Massachusetts voters support less harsh punishments for juveniles. Also, federal courts have ruled that kids are not “little adults” and need to be sentenced with that in mind, and national studies by organizations such as The Sentencing Project have shown that juvenile lifers want to change their lives, and the majority can do so when given the opportunity. This is occurring also, in spite of the fact that some states, such as West Virginia, permit parole review for juvenile lifers after 15 years – which is what Massachusetts should be doing, at the very least, according to juvenile justice advocates.

Why Now?

This bill comes in the wake of the first-of-their-kind hearings for two first-degree lifers who went before the Massachusetts Parole Board on May 29, 2014. They received this opportunity after federal and state groundbreaking court cases.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision, Miller v. Alabama. Miller said juveniles needed a judge’s thorough consideration and could not be automatically sentenced to life without a chance at parole.

Then in 2013, Massachusetts went even further in its interpretation of Miller with the Diatchenko v. District Attorney decision by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). On December 24, prisoners, their families, and those who had worked for years on their behalf hailed the SJC for striking down all sentences of life without parole eligibility for juveniles. This made sense; no other country allows juveniles to live behind bars until they die.

The decision was built on scientific research that kids are wildly different than adults in terms of brain development, impulse control, and response to peer pressure. This was acknowledged in press across the country, most notably in a June 29 New York Times op-ed, “Why Teenagers Act Crazy.”

The SJC added to the mix that no juvenile “is irretrievably depraved,” and all deserve “a meaningful chance for parole.” This is important because a “chance” does not necessarily mean automatic release. But a “chance” provides a child with hope, and this is crucial since most then have something to work toward after years of unstable environments, exposure to violence and abuse and subsequent incarceration. Reading between the lines of the Diatchenko decision, parole expert Attorney Patricia Garin said in an interview that the SJC decision should mean 15 years before parole eligibility for those Massachusetts juveniles who were already sentenced to life.

“Meaningful chance for parole” might seem to imply even less than 15 years. In response to the pending legislation, a Boston Globe editorial called for allowing some juvenile lifers to serve 10 years before eligibility. But after Diatchenko, Massachusetts legislators, petitioned by families of murder victims, immediately scrambled to craft bills to insist on 35 years before juvenile first-degree lifers would ever see the Parole Board. In hearings on proposed bills, they called these youth “depraved” and said their heinous crimes proved they were irredeemable. Families of victims collected 15,000 signatures opposing the release of these lifers. The SJC decision was thrown under the bus. The political ball was rolling.

Who Are These First-Degree Lifers?

These juveniles are not the monsters so often painted by the media. Certainly many of the crimes are especially heinous. But while many cases detail horrendous crimes committed by juveniles, there is most often a terrifying story behind the lives of such youth.

Joshua Rovner of The Sentencing Project points out in a brief about the Miller decision that Evan Miller was a troubled child; he attempted suicide four times, starting at age 6. When Massachusetts juvenile John Odgren, who was found guilty of premeditated malice of forethought and extreme atrocity and cruelty, learned the boy he stabbed had actually died, he wanted a teddy bear to help deal with the stress. Ben Piven in an AlJazeera points out that “racially-hinged laws” often drive juvenile life-without-parole sentences and are all too often responsible for the myth of the super-predator or “morally irredeemable kids that couldn’t be fixed.”

In Massachusetts, these lifers fall into two categories: those sentenced for felony-murder, i.e. they were there but didn’t pull the trigger, and those who were convicted of homicide. The first lifers who sought parole after Diatchenko were two of 63 in the state and the first of the 2,570 serving previously in juvenile life-without-parole sentences across the country.

Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona granted clemency to a man who was 16 when he was convicted of shooting his mother and stepfather in a plot to get money and leave the state, nearly a half-century ago, as reported in the San Jose Mercury by Paige Sutherland of the Associated Press. But Massachusetts led the way with parole hearings for first-degree lifers, and for many, that seemed promising.

Frederick Christian, now 37, who was convicted in 1998 for his involvement in a gruesome crime, was one of the two first-degree lifers to seek parole. Christian and his codefendant, Russell Horton, planned to rip-off drug dealers, and while they sat in a car waiting for their chance, Horton shot the other three men in the car, Kepler Desir, Manuel Araujo and his brother Carlos. Christian served 20 years for felony-murder. He received a unanimous parole approval literally one week after his hearing. Some buzz around the state said that this approval spurred lawmakers to fight even harder for harsh juvenile sentencing bills.

In prison, he converted to Islam, enrolled in many programs that helped his development, and had an excellent disciplinary record. He had few supporters at the hearing, and the district attorney blasted him for being “a vicious premeditated murderer.” Carlos Araujo testified that if Christian were released, he’d fear for the lives of his children. But Christian prevailed, citing his GED and his faith as the most significant accomplishments for him in prison. After an eight-week prep for release program behind bars, he’ll serve one year in lower security before going home to Tennessee, reported The Boston Globe.

Joseph Donovan, now 38, was convicted in 1993 for the murder of an MIT student, and as of this writing, although his hearing was the same day as Christian’s, he awaits the decision of the Parole Board. Donovan, who had over 40 supporters at his hearing and the approval for release of his victim’s family, said at the hearing, “I was a stupid teenager.” He admittedly spent his first years in prison as a troublemaker, ending up in solitary. While there, he realized that because MCI Cedar Junction, aka Walpole, was a violent place to be, he’d had to be a tough guy. He said he transformed himself into a reader and someone who helped others, and he looked forward to working his way through programs at a minimum security before release. Even the assistant district attorney found it difficult to say he was still a threat to society, but if the new bill goes into effect and Donovan does not get the votes for parole, he will not be able to reapply until he is 48.

Juvenile Injustice

Advocates like Joshua M. Dohan, director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, and Naoka Carey, Executive Director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, have heralded the recent SJC decision.

In an interview, Dohan pointed out that much of the groundbreaking research on adolescent development has come out of the University of Massachusetts, and cited the state’s recently passed “Raise the Age” law as an example of the leadership of Massachusetts in juvenile justice. That law now sends 17-year-olds to the juvenile system, excluding those accused of murder. Carey said “Saying juveniles are different from adults doesn’t mean we don’t hold them accountable.” She pointed out that Massachusetts has been a model in understanding that “No one is the same person at 30 that they were at 15.”

But Massachusetts has not lived up to its progressive promise with the current bill. All juvenile lifers deserve a “meaningful opportunity for rehabilitation.” Nothing can bring back a loved one, but a life transformed has meaning. A humane criminal justice system should go hand in hand with keeping our world safe.

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