DA: Several Massachusetts inmates will ‘eventually’ become eligible for parole after SJC’s ruling

BOSTON — Several Massachusetts inmates will eventually become eligible for parole as a result of Thursday’s state Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling regarding persons convicted for first-degree murder committed when they were 20 years old or younger, Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden announced.

Sentencing 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to serve a life term without the possibility of parole violates the prohibition against cruel or unusual punishment and is unconstitutional, the SJC in a 4-3 ruling that overrules the state Legislature.

The court determined that “the brains of emerging adults are not fully developed and are more similar to those of juveniles than older adults, and that our contemporary standards of decency in the Commonwealth and elsewhere disfavor imposing the Commonwealth’s harshest sentence on this cohort,” Chief Justice Kimberly Budd wrote.

Massachusetts is one of 10 states that require sentences of life without parole for people ages 18 through 20 who are convicted of murder in the first degree.

“With the ruling, any imprisoned person who meets that criteria will become eligible for parole in accordance with state law,” Hayden said. “The ruling does not change the status of inmates convicted of first-degree murder committed when 21 or older.”

Hayden also emphasized that the ruling does not automatically grant parole to applicable inmates.

“Rather, it makes them eligible for parole in accordance with the state Parole Board’s hearing and review standards,” according to Hayden.

“We know this decision will generate questions among the survivors of homicide victims of both the immediate and distant past, and we want to make sure that those survivors get accurate information about the ruling. Our victim witness advocates will help these families and loved ones understand how the SJC decision affects them,” Hayden said.

His office is reaching out to survivors with current contact information, Hayden said. But contact information for many older cases is no longer accurate, he said.

Survivors of applicable homicide cases are encouraged to visit the SCDAO website where a form is available referencing services provided by the office. The office’s victim witness advocates are knowledgeable about the decision and stand ready to assist survivors, Hayden said.

“I’m urging anyone impacted by this decision to contact us so we can provide the information necessary to understand what this ruling does and does not do,” Hayden said.

In response to the ruling, the Bristol Country District Attorney’s Office said in a statement: “We are in the process of reviewing the decision that was issued today and have already identified several cases that it applies to. We have brutal and premeditated murders that have been committed by juveniles and young adults who are impacted by this decision.”

Attorney General Andrea Campbell says in a statement that this ruling acknowledges the ongoing brain development of young people to “improve public safety, reduce recidivism and deliver justice.”

“The science emphatically demonstrates that young people have an extraordinary capacity to change and mature, and our justice system should provide them the invaluable opportunity to turn their lives around and fulfill their potential,” said AG Campbell.

Boston 25 legal analyst Peter Elikann echoed a similar sentiment.

“Young people who commit a crime actually have the ability to change as they grow up and young people often commit acts on impulse that they don’t when they’re older,” said Elikann.

He stresses that it’s important to understand that not everyone impacted will get parole.

“Everybody would be eligible. No guarantee or promise you will be paroled but there would be hope,” Elikann said.

And he adds that hope is what the SJC ruling offers. Elikann says this is a progression in thinking and science over the last thirty years about how a juvenile’s mind works.

“Juveniles are not just miniature adults but science shows their brains really are different and they really do have the potential to turn their lives around,” he said.

Boston 25 News spoke to a family whose relative was raped and killed thirty years ago. They were not able to talk on camera, but said they are upset and very disappointed with the SJC’s decision.

In September 2023, Campbell testified in support of An Act to promote public safety and better outcomes for young adults, more commonly known as legislation to “Raise the Age”, reflecting the latest brain development science, aligning closely with Thursday’s ruling.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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