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What Massachusetts Law Says About Juveniles Charged With Murder

A memorial has popped up for Jonathan Dos Santos on the corner of Washington and Fuller streets in Dorchester, where he was shot and killed last week. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A memorial has popped up for Jonathan Dos Santos on the corner of Washington and Fuller streets in Dorchester, where he was shot and killed last week. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Two Boston teenagers — one 14, one 16 — are facing murder charges in the shooting death of a 16-year-old in Dorchester. Both will be tried as adults.

While it's still very early in that case, it's worth noting that Massachusetts law has changed recently when it comes to sentencing juveniles in murder cases.

In Massachusetts, individuals 14 years old or older who are charged with murder are automatically tried as adults. That's been the law since 1996. Before then, young murder suspects were handled by juvenile courts with rare exceptions, as WBUR's Asma Khalid previously reported.

Then, in 1995, a 15-year-old former altar boy from Somerville was accused of murdering a friend’s mother by stabbing her dozens of times ... The following year a new law was put on the books in Massachusetts. It spelled out that anyone 14 and older accused of murder would be tried as an adult. No discretion from prosecutors or the judge. The mantra was “adult time for adult crime.”

But, in recent years, the state's highest court has said that when you're dealing with juveniles, you have to use a different approach — especially when it comes to sentencing.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2013 that sentencing juveniles convicted of murder to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional. The court called those sentences "an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment when viewed in the context of the unique characteristics of juvenile offenders."

The SJC ruling came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court in that decision focused on judicial discretion. The court said not allowing a judge or jury to consider the defendant’s age and other factors violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Experts on juvenile justice say the courts recognized that juveniles — due to age, brain development and other facts — are different than adults and should be treated differently.

"What the court in Massachusetts found was that it really is impossible to say that any young person at the age of 14, 15, 16, etc. that they are beyond hope, that they are beyond the possibility of being rehabilitated … so you have to have that chance of parole down the line," said Naoka Carey, the executive director of the advocacy group Citizens for Juvenile Justice.

Josh Dohan, the director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said the SJC findings also recognized that judges needed to have more discretion in these cases. But Dohan said the SJC's ruling “took it a step further” than the Supreme Court ruling — under which a judge could still issue a sentence without parole — by saying no matter what someone does as a juvenile, they will have the option of parole.

“Their ruling basically reflected that any kid who could be rehabilitated should have another chance — not be guaranteed — but should have another chance to live life out in the community,” Dohan said.

Building on the 2013 ruling, the SJC in March ruled that juveniles seeking parole are entitled to lawyers and expert witnesses at their parole hearings. Dohan said that ruling recognized that the parole process is often challenging and complicated and juvenile offenders are "not likely to be equipped” to understand parole board proceedings.

These rulings don’t guarantee lower sentences or parole for juvenile offenders. For first degree murder, it can take 20 to 30 years for anyone to see the parole board, Dohan said, while it could take 15 to 25 years for second degree murder.

Instead, the experts say the rulings recognize what science has shown about adolescent brain development.

“You can’t make someone be an adult who isn’t in fact an adult. And you can’t make them understand more than their brains are actually capable of understanding,” Carey said.

In response to the SJC ruling, Massachusetts lawmakers passed a bill last year allowing parole for all juveniles convicted of murder under a three-tier system. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Deval Patrick in July 2014.

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Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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