By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- A legislative committee on Monday signed off on a bill setting parole eligibility terms for juveniles convicted of first degree murder.
The bill calls for juveniles convicted of a first-degree felony murder to be parole eligible in 20 to 25 years. Juveniles convicted of first degree murder with deliberate premeditation, malice or "extreme cruelty" would have to wait longer between 25 and 30 years before becoming parole eligible, according to Rep. Chris Markey, the House vice-chair of the Judiciary Committee.
The bill, which cleared the Judiciary Committee and was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, was prompted by a Supreme Judicial Court ruling in 2013 determining that a life sentence without parole for a juvenile was unconstitutional (Diatchenko v. District Attorney). At the federal level, a 2012 ruling (Alabama v. Miller) had separately determined that developmental differences make children constitutionally different from adults in sentencing cases.
Due to the SJC ruling, defendants who were juveniles at the time of the murder and have served 15 years of their life sentence will become immediately eligible for parole.
"There are individuals who have committed some of the most heinous crimes and they are now parole eligible at 15 years, and I think that as a society we think that is too low," said Markey, a Dartmouth Democrat and former prosecutor.
The bill accounts for the developmental differences between children and adults that the courts have noted in their rulings, he said.
"I think it's a pretty balanced bill, after a significant amount of deliberation from everybody, from the law enforcement side, from the child advocate side," Markey said.
During an emotional Judiciary Committee hearing in May, Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester), law enforcement officials and victims' families pushed for a minimum of 35 years before a parole review.
Tarr said the bill that cleared the committee on Monday "moves in the right direction, but needs to go further."
Tarr said he is also concerned with some of the provisions that appear to try to differentiate between first-degree murders committed by juveniles and apply different sanctions based on the severity of the crime and level of premeditation. Tarr said that could be a "major change" in public policy. "We don't need to venture into that territory," Tarr said.
"The most important thing is that the committee has released a bill that moves in the right direction and gives us a chance to address this before the end of session, and that must happen," Tarr said.
At the May hearing, members of the Massachusetts Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Youth testified that 15 years is a more appropriate sentence before juveniles become parole eligible because juveniles' brains are not fully developed.
Naoka Carey, the executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice and a member of the coalition, said in some of the cases, there are a unique set of circumstances, such as a juvenile being given alcohol and drugs and encouraged to commit the crimes.
"Saying you have to wait 25 years or 30 years doesn't adequately account for how much young people can change," Carey said.
Carey said she was also concerned with the bill's changes to the so-called "setback period." The Judiciary Committee bill has a provision that says if the state Parole Board denies a prisoner parole, the prisoner can return before the board within the next 10 years. That is an increase from the current "setback period" of five years.
Under the bill, the prisoner can ask the Parole Board to reconsider, Markey said.
Markey said the move is intended to prevent families of victims from having to come back before the Parole Board every five years.
A Judiciary Committee vote tally was unavailable on Monday, though Markey, who voted for the bill, said some lawmakers reserved their rights.