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Juveniles convicted of first-degree murder would be eligible for parole after serving at least 20 years of a life sentence under a bill approved Monday by a state Senate panel.
The bill, scheduled for debate by the full Senate on Tuesday, represented the latest effort by lawmakers to reconcile Massachusetts law with rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the state's highest court that struck down as unconstitutional mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles.
Under the measure that cleared the Senate Ethics and Rules Committee, teens convicted of first-degree murder before their 18th birthday would become eligible for parole not sooner than 20 years and no later than 30 years into their sentences.
Massachusetts law currently mandates life sentences without parole for anyone convicted of first-degree murder, regardless of age. Juveniles age 14 or older can be tried for murder as an adult.
The Senate proposal is substantially similar to a House-passed bill that would make juveniles eligible for parole within 20 to 25 years of the start of their sentences. The House version also contained language that would increase the wait for parole eligibility to 25 to 30 years in cases of murder committed with "extreme atrocity or cruelty."
Lawmakers stress the pending legislation would not guarantee that juvenile lifers someday walk out of prison. A vote of the state parole board would be required following a hearing at which relatives of murder victims could provide testimony.
An inmate who is denied parole by the board could have to wait 10 years for their next opportunity.
Members of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, an independent organization, object to the bill and planned to meet at the Statehouse before Tuesday's debate to lobby senators against passage. The group supports making juveniles eligible for parole 15 years into their sentences.
"We think 15 years is more than enough to provide them with time to rehabilitate and time to pay for their crimes, but give them an opportunity to return to their communities and become productive members," said Rachel Corey, the coalition's interim executive director.
Corey said the group also objects to the 10-year waiting period between parole requests, which would be double the current five-year waiting period for other crimes.
The parole board has already begun hearings for some of the 63 prisoners serving life without parole following the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's December ruling that lifelong imprisonment for juveniles is a cruel and unusual punishment. The court cited scientific research showed that their brains were not fully developed.
Family members of some victims appeared before lawmakers in May in support of a bill proposed by Sens. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and Barry Finegold, D-Andover, which called for a more stringent 35-year wait for parole eligibility.