By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- House and Senate negotiators reached a deal Tuesday on sentencing reforms for juvenile murderers to establish a three-tiered system for parole eligibility after state and federal courts struck down life sentences without parole as unconstitutional.
A six-member panel filed a compromise bill ( H 4307) on Tuesday afternoon that would make juveniles ages 14 to 17 convicted of first degree murder eligible for parole after serving 20 to 30 years of their life sentence in prison.
In cases involving premeditation, juveniles would face 25 years to 30 years in prison before becoming parole eligible or a minimum of 30 years in murders with "extreme atrocity or cruelty."
"It reflects a compromise and the diversity of views in both bodies and I think it's a reasonable place to be," said Sen. William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat and Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee, who led negotiations for the Senate.
The bill represents a blending of the approaches taken separately by the House and Senate, adopting Senate-backed sentencing guidelines for first degree murder and especially horrific slayings and incorporating the House's preference for creating a separate category for premeditated murder.
The conference committee elected not to include changes to the amount of time a convicted murderer would have to wait between parole hearings if they are denied early release, leaving the five-year waiting period untouched.
"I think it's the right outcome on the setback," said Brownsberger, who originally proposed a 10-year waiting period before it was changed during debate in the Senate.
The conference committee's recommendations, which are not subject to amendment, will go first to the House. Both branches have formal sessions scheduled for Wednesday.
"I expect it will be moved along quickly given all the things we need to do," Brownsberger said.
Rep. Christopher Markey, who led the House negotiating team, could not immediately be reached for comment.
All six lawmakers on the conference committee signed off on the compromise. The committee also included Reps. Garrett Bradley (D-Hingham) and Bradford Hill (R-Ipswich) and Sens. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster) and Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester).
Earlier in the session Senate Minority Tarr and Sen. Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat, filed legislation with 19 co-sponsors in the House and Senate seeking to set a mandatory prison period of 35 years served before a juvenile murderer could become parole eligible.
The bill does not propose to make any sentencing changes for adults convicted of first or second degree murder.
At the start of the year, there were 63 juveniles in the Massachusetts prison system serving life without parole.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 struck down life sentences without parole for juvenile murders on the grounds that they violated the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The state Supreme Judicial Court followed up that ruling on Christmas Eve 2013 with a decision that found life sentences for juvenile murderers in violation of the state's constitutional prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment because there are neurological and psychological differences between juveniles and adults. The ruling overturned a 1996 statute that allowed juveniles 14 years or older charged with murder to be tried as an adult.
Following the court decisions, sentences in Massachusetts for juveniles convicted of murder defaulted to 15 years before becoming parole eligible.
Some activists and juvenile court judges, including the Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Youth, pushed for parole eligibility to remain at 15 years because of developmental differences between juvenile brains and adult brains and the potential for effective rehabilitation.