The phones were ringing off the hook and it was a banner day in the office Lynn’s Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts as the U.S. Supreme Court gave credence to what the local center has fought for many years.
On Monday, the nation’s highest court voted in a tight, 5-4 decision to revoke mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles. It is an issue that the Lynn agency has fought to shine a light on for many years.
In fact, in 2009, the Center released an epic report entitled ‘Until the Die a Natural Death: Youth Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Massachusetts.’ It was a report that Center Director, Barbara Kaban, indicated took two years to complete.
At the time, she said that there were 50 incarcerated individual in Massachusetts who were juvenile when they received a life sentence without parole.
“I was surprised by the sheer numbers of juvenile individuals serving life without parole in Massachusetts,” Kaban told the Journal in 2009. “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.”
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 Center’s 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.
The Center, located on Union Street, has long advocated not for giving youthful offenders a pass, but rather to give them a second chance after several years in jail.
“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.”
Such clemency also seemed to make sense to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, though it was important to note that the court did not outlaw juvenile life sentences without parole.
The majority opinion, offered by newest Justice Elena Kagan, indicated that such sentences fell under the Constitutions ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Those agreeing with Kagan were Justices Ruth Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony Kennedy.
Those in the minority were Justices Sam Alito Jr., John Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
Some 29 states, including Massachusetts, have homicide sentencing mandates of life without parole for juvenile offenders.
Statistics released by the court showed that there were 2,300 people incarcerated for murders committed before they were 18, but only 79 who had committed such acts when they were 14 or younger.
“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,” Kaban said in 2009.