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Massachusetts senators on Tuesday approved a bill that would allow juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to become eligible for parole after serving between 20 and 30 years in prison.
The measure passed on a 37-2 vote after amendments that sought a higher minimum parole threshold were defeated, some by slim margins. It will have to be reconciled with a slightly different House version that sets parole eligibility at 20-25 years for most juvenile lifers, and 25-30 years in cases with extreme cruelty or atrocity.
The Senate bill 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 found mandatory life sentences without parole unconstitutional for juveniles.
The state, which has no death penalty, has in the past mandated life without parole for all first-degree murder convictions regardless of age. Juveniles age 14 or older can be tried for murder as adults.
Under the bill, judges must give inmates convicted of first-degree murder before their 18th birthday a chance to go before the state parole board no sooner than 20 years, but not longer than 30 years into their sentences.
Senators, on a 23-16 vote, defeated an amendment proposed by Republican leader Bruce Tarr that would have required 35 years to be served before parole eligibility. A later amendment calling for a 25-year threshold was rejected on an even narrower 20-19 margin in a chamber where Democrats hold an overwhelming majority and close votes are relatively unusual.
"We literally hold the direction of lives in our hands, we hold public safety in our hands, and we hold the integrity of the judicial and criminal justice systems in our hands," Tarr said during the debate.
Senators did back one amendment that would require juveniles convicted of murder with extreme cruelty or atrocity to serve the full 30 years before parole eligibility, a compromise which may have convinced Tarr and other lawmakers to support the bill on the final vote.
Currently, more than 60 inmates in Massachusetts are serving first-degree murder sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. The parole board has begun reviewing their cases, but the bill would not be retroactive to apply to them.
Sen. William Brownsberger, a Watertown Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, noted the strong opinions on both sides of the issue and said the 20-30 range represented a middle ground.
"People who are looking at this from both perspectives, (those) who think this bill is too harsh and those who think it is too lenient, will recognize that there is a great diversity of views ... and that we have made a great effort to hear that range of views," Brownsberger said.
Sens. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Linda Dorcena Forry, both Boston Democrats, voted against the bill after saying they preferred a lesser period for parole eligibility.
Joshua Dohan, youth advocacy director for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said his organization also supported a lower threshold but praised lawmakers for including additional rehabilitative services in prison.