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Advocate: Convicted Juveniles Are ‘Key Candidates’ For Rehabilitation

BOSTON — Two recent murders allegedly committed by young teenagers have been raising questions about how the state treats juvenile criminals.

A 15-year-old boy from Mattapan was charged last Thursday with fatally shooting a man in the South End. And last Sunday, a 14-year-old boy was charged with fatally stabbing a man in Dorchester.

By state law, the two will automatically be tried as adults and face mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole if convicted.

But the Massachusetts Child Advocate Gail Garinger has been calling for changes in how we sentence juveniles for murder. Garinger joined WBUR’s Morning Edition to explain how a June decision by the Supreme Court – which said mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for  juveniles convicted of murder are unconstitutional — may change the law in Massachusetts.

“[T]heir immaturity leads them to commit acts of violence at times, [and] that same immaturity in the forming brain allows them to be key candidates for rehabilitation.”

Gail Garinger: Clearly the language in that opinion points out that we have to respond differently to young people. Also, I just want to mention that the two recent murders in Massachusetts allegedly committed by juveniles is an aberration.

Bob Oakes: What do you mean by that?

I mean in the sense that youth arrests for violent crimes only count for about 5 percent of all juvenile arrests each year, and to have two murders allegedly committed by teenagers within the span of a week, I can think of no time in Massachusetts history where that’s been the case.

As I understand it you’d rather focus on trying to rehabilitate these teens, but does the state know the best way to do that?

Well, I think the best way to do that is to take cues from what we’re learning from our own Department of Youth Services in terms of how they attempt to zero in on the individual who is in their custody and offer the array of services that’s going to give the opportunity for the best shot at rehabilitation. We also learn from the Supreme Court opinion and learn from recent brain science that juvenile brains are different and that they really, at the same time that their immaturity leads them to commit acts of violence at times, that same immaturity in the forming brain allows them to be key candidates for rehabilitation.

It might be argued that not all juveniles can be rehabilitated, that some even though they are at a young age may simply be psychopaths.

There’s nothing in my advocacy that suggests that there may not be individuals who need to be incarcerated for the rest of their lives. What I’m talking about is a meaningful opportunity to have a hearing both in front of a judge at the time of sentencing, that’s what [the Supreme Court case] taught us, “individualized sentencing,” not automatic life without parole.

You’re saying essentially then let the system work — the kid goes to jail and let the system work and let the system determine whether that now inmate should be eligible for parole or not.

Clearly, I’m actually talking about two decision points. One, giving the judge discretion to formulate an individualized sentence that responds to the information in front of the judge at the time, and then also having down the road a meaningful chance for the youth to present evidence to the parole board that he or she is a candidate for release.

What do you say to families of victims in these horrible cases who may well be looking for the deepest punishment possible?

I was a judge, I’m a mother, my heart goes out to victims in these cases. I think what we’re saying is we can’t decide at 16 whether someone needs to be locked up for life.

Do you think there’s support on Beacon Hill to get these kind of changes passed?

Since the [Supreme Court] decision — and even before the decision — there’s been a lot of ongoing discussion among the Legislature, the administration and advocates in terms of how to respond. As you know, we now have a law in Massachusetts that’s unconstitutional. We have to do something. I think we should take this as an opportunity to really, within the spirit of the decision, take our time and fashion a new law and sentencing system that is the most appropriate one in dealing with juveniles.

Then do you think if the Massachusetts law is not passed there will be a court challenge?

Oh, I think there is a court challenge in the works.

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