By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Juveniles convicted of first-degree murder would be required to serve a minimum of 35 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole under a new bill being filed by Sen. Barry Finegold and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr that seeks to address a recent high-court ruling that life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for youthful offenders.
The lawmakers argued that the families of victims killed by juvenile offenders should not be forced after just 15 years, the timeframe under current law, to relive the tragedy every five years at a Parole Board hearing. Finegold and Tarr held a press conference to unveil their bill, which already has 19 co-sponsors in the House and Senate from both parties.
"While it's not an ideal situation, we hope it will bring some measure of comfort to the victims' families that they won't have to go before the Parole Board for 35 years," said Finegold, an Andover Democrat.
The proposal mirrors the prison term that Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett and the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association called for in a letter to lawmakers last week.
Unlike other proposals filed last year before the Supreme Judicial Court ruling that also sought minimum 35-year sentences for juveniles, Tarr said the bill would also create an additional standard that the Parole Board verify before releasing a juvenile offender convicted of first degree murder that he or she did not have the maturity of an adult at the time of their crime.
"We are here today to pledge that we will act," Tarr said.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Constitution, but held out the possibility that a judge could impose such a sentence in certain cases. However, the state Supreme Judicial Court followed up with a ruling of its own in December that all life sentences without parole for juveniles violate the state Constitution.
Under current law, juveniles convicted of first-degree murder would become eligible for parole after serving 15 to 25 years, the same as a second-degree murder conviction.
"The Supreme Court said that it is cruel and unusual punishment that a juvenile would have to spend their life behind bars without parole, but it is also cruel and unusual punishment that after only 15 years and every 5 years thereafter, a victim's family would have to relive such a horrible tragedy," Finegold said.
There are 63 juveniles in the Massachusetts prison system serving life without parole. While Tarr said the parole standards were added the bill to address juvenile cases retroactively impacted by the court rulings, some senators admitted there was a "gray area" for those already in prison.
The SJC, in its ruling, explicitly stated that it was within the rights of the Legislature to treat juveniles convicted of first degree murder more harshly than those found guilty of other crimes, such as second degree murder. Senators said the bill reflects their best attempt to strike a balance between the constitutionality of sentencing and holding juveniles accountable for their crimes.
Finegold chose to file the bill after the parents of Colleen Ritzer, the 24-year-old Danvers High School teacher murdered by a 14-year-old student, reached out to him upset by the court's ruling. Finegold read a statement from the Ritzer family, who said the bill would be a "significant improvement" over the court's decision.
The brother and sister of Beth Brodie, who was 15 when she was beaten to death with a baseball bat in 1992 by a 16-year-old boy she had dated a few times, joined lawmakers on Beacon Hill for the press conference.
"We were assured that these killers would serve the rest of their lives in prison," said Sean Aylward, Brodie's brother. Choking back tears, Brodie's sister Kellie Schaffer said she would not want to relive what happened to Beth over and over each time her killer came up for parole.
"This feels like a slap in our faces," Schaffer said.
Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, Sen. Kathleen O'Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, Sen. Donald Humason, R-Westfield, Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, Rep. Theodore Speliotis, D-Danvers and Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury attended the event in support of the bill.
"We are now the voice of these victims," said Lovely, who counts the Ritzer family as constituents.
Josh Dohan, director of the youth advocacy division with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said he was sympathetic to the concerns lawmakers were trying to address, but said a minimum 35-year term could bring about a de-facto return to life sentences without parole.
"I understand where it's coming from. Everybody feels for the families that have had to go through this and there's nothing you can do to make that better for them. But when it comes to then how do you deal with the youthful offender, the answer is no, this is not fair," Dohan said.
Dohan said judges need to be given discretion to consider the individual merits of cases and set the terms of minimum prison sentences before an offender can become parole eligible. He said the sentences proposed in the Finegold-Tarr bill would be out of line with international standards and inconsistent with the science that suggests a youthful offender can mature by their early 30s out of the behavioral patterns that led to their crime.
"It needs to be after a reasonable term. Thirty-five years is not reasonable," Dohan said.