Tuesday January 29, 2013

The logic of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory criminal sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole in the case of defendants under the age of 18 amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment is of dubious wisdom, but the reality is that states including Massachusetts must comply with it. Legislation filed Monday by Governor Patrick does so while allowing maximum punishment in the most egregious cases, but lawmakers can still explore ways of assuring the law is fair to the families of victims.

In 1996, shortly after 15-year-old Eddie O’Brien was convicted of stabbing a friend’s mother to death, Massachusetts passed a law mandating a life sentence without parole for anyone aged 14 and older convicted of first-degree murder. With this law negated by the Miller decision, the governor proposes that the juvenile court sentence these individuals to either life with parole eligibility after 15 to 25 years served or life without parole only after judges consider 11 mitigating factors. It is likely that the sentence of life without parole would rarely if ever be issued again under this law.

There is sentiment among legislators that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder should serve longer terms of as many as 35 years before becoming eligible for parole. The prospect of a 15-year-old convicted of a heinous crime being out on the street at the age of 30 is disconcerting. The murderer will have many decades ahead, which can’t be said of the victim. Friends and families would understandably find this reality horrifying.

Child advocates argue that teenagers are given to impulsive behavior and are unduly influenced by peers, and considering the real possibility of rehabilitation, should not be sentenced to life in prison without parole for any crime, even murder. Their points are valid, but a court’s foremost responsibility is to assure that justice is done for all, a responsibility lawmakers must consider.