As the family of a 15-year-old girl murdered by her 16-year-old boyfriend looked on, a group of Massachusetts lawmakers proposed legislation Thursday that would require juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to serve a minimum of 35 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole.
The bill comes in response to recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, said the bill is aimed at giving some sense of justice to the families of murder victims who thought the people who killed their loved ones would stay in prison for the rest of their lives. As a result of the SJC decision, juveniles convicted of murder could be eligible for parole in as little as 15 years.
"The Supreme Court said that it is cruel and unusual punishment that a juvenile would have to spend their life behind bars without parole, but it is also cruel and unusual punishment that after only 15 years and every five years thereafter, a victim's family would have to relive such a horrible tragedy," Finegold said.
Currently, first-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole, even for juveniles.
Tarr said the bill — which mirrors a proposal made by state prosecutors — seeks to ensure the new penalty would be deemed constitutional under the recent court rulings while making sure juveniles who commit murder receive appropriate sentences. He said that in addition to the 35-year minimum, the bill would also require that the state Parole Board, in order to grant parole, to find that the juvenile did not have the mental state of an adult when the crime was committed.
Kellie Schaffer, the sister of Beth Brodie, a 15-year-old from Groveland who was beaten to death with an aluminum baseball bat in 1992 by a 16-year-old boy she'd dated several times, said the SJC ruling "feels like a slap in the face."
"I don't believe we should be forced to relive our tragedy again," she said. "Our murdered loved ones deserve better than that. They deserve justice."
As a result of the SJC ruling, approximately 63 people who were convicted of first-degree murder as juveniles will now be eligible for parole.
Some defense lawyers have urged caution in responding to the court rulings.
"Judges need to have some discretion on where to set parole eligibility based on the individual young person, their background and the circumstances of the offenses," said Joshua Dohan, director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state's public defender agency.