Is life too long? – Lynn group says juvenile life sentences may be too harsh, releases comprehensive report

By Seth Daniel

Using particularly poor judgment, one Massachusetts teen several years ago participated with friends in an armed robbery, and though the teen was unarmed, one friend was armed and killed a man.

For being present at the time, and for using such bad judgment, that teen-age moment has now defined the man’s life. Though under 17 and a juvenile, he was sentenced to life without parole.

His life was, in effect, over before it began.

Now, one Lynn child advocacy group is pointing out scores of stories just like this one in which Massachusetts teens have been sentenced to life without parole for heinous crimes, and have no hope of ever seeing the light of day again.

The Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, which has been based in Lynn for more than 30 years and located on Union Street, released their report on juvenile life sentences last week. Entitled ‘Until they Die a Natural Death: Youth Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Massachusetts,’ the report highlights a somewhat harsh change in sentencing law made in the 1990s and hopes to strike a careful balance between making people re-think the law’s consequences while also not giving a pass to young people who commit atrocious crimes.

Barbara Kaban, deputy director of the center, said that the report took two years to complete and the numbers of children who have received these sentences was surprising. There are nearly 50 incarcerated individuals in the state who were juveniles when they received a life sentence without parole.

“I was surprised by the sheer numbers of juvenile individuals serving life without parole in Massachusetts,” she said from her Lynn office. “The next closest state is Connecticut with only nine. New York and New Jersey, which have similar youth populations, have no youths serving that sentence. They reserve that only for adults. We tend to think of ourselves in Massachusetts as a very forward thinking, liberal state and this makes one question that notion.”

She also said it was very important to know that the suggestions in the report are not about giving kids a pass, but rather about giving them a second chance after they have served a considerable amount of jail time.

“This is not about giving kids a pass,” she said. “It’s about being smart and tough on crime. It’s about giving these kids, after 15 years served, a chance to go before a parole board to see if they’re rehabilitated. Some will be and some will not. It’s actually in all of our interests to consider this because it costs $2.5 million to incarcerate a person for life.”

Tougher juvenile sentencing laws came into vogue in the 1990s when juvenile (read 14, 15 and 16 year olds) crime spiked. Horrific events unfolded on the streets in Massachusetts and across the country.

There were even questions as to whether that generation of teens had become “super-predators,” the report noted.

At the same time, many were outraged at the lax sentencing of juveniles in the 1980s where – even though committing crimes like murder – they were automatically released at the age of 21. That was due to the juvenile court being limited in its ability to sentence young people past the age of 21.

The stage was set for some sort of change, and what came out of that atmosphere was the current law passed in 1996 where juveniles convicted of heinous murders face mandatory life sentences without parole.

Since that time, juvenile crime has plummeted compared to that of the 1990s, and the “super-predator” theories have been trashed. Homicide is much lower among juveniles than it has been in decades.

Still, though, the law has not changed, and Kaban said that maybe kids receiving tough sentences should have a chance to prove they have been rehabilitated – that perhaps they made a stupid teen-age decision and deserve a second chance.

In support of that, the report recommends that youth sentences be handled the way second-degree murder is handled for adults – with a chance down the road for a second chance.

“Fair sentencing for youth does not mean that we return to the plainly inadequate juvenile court sentences for homicides in the 1980s,” read the report. “But it does mean that we stop imposing the state’s harshest adult punishment on children. If, as we recommend here, life sentences for juveniles mirrored the life sentences imposed on adults for second-degree murder, the sentence would be reviewed by the [parole board] after a minimum of 15 years, but could continue for a maximum of lifetime incarceration…Each individual would simply be given a chance to prove that they have earned the right to release through rehabilitation, that growing up has changed them.”

Kaban said, in conclusion, that none of us is the same person we were as teen-agers, and perhaps some of these youthful offenders have changed, especially – she said – given all of the new research on brain development in teens and adults.

“We definitely recognize that kids need to be punished for these crimes, but we also know that who we are at 14 or 15 is not who we are at 35,” she said. “There should be an opportunity for meaningful review after 15 years, asking the question whether or not this individual is rehabilitated.”

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