Judge bars mandatory life sentences for people under 21 in Mass.

A Massachusetts Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday that it's unconstitutional to automatically sentence people under the age of 21 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

For the past decade, the state has barred judges from sentencing defendants under 18 to life without parole. But state law still ordered judges to impose the harshest possible prison sentence in some circumstances for people who were between 18 and 20 when the acts were committed.

This week's ruling comes after the state Supreme Judicial Court asked Judge Robert Ullmann to review the latest neuroscience on how the brain develops in those under 21. The court also asked him to examine two cases involving teenagers sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murders. Jason Robinson was 19 years old when he was convicted in 2002 and Sheldon Mattis was 18 years old when he was convicted in 2013.

In Mattis's case, he turned 18 years old eight months after the murder while his co-defendant Nyasani Watt was still 17 years old. Watt turned 18 ten days after the murder and is eligible for parole after 15 years in prison because he was not 18 at the time of the crime.

"The judge found that a matter of months doesn't make that much of a difference," said Mattis's attorney Ruth Greenberg. "The conclusion here is that they're more like children and are entitled to the constitutional protections that 17-year-olds are."

More than 1,000 people are currently serving life sentences without parole in Massachusetts, including 205 people who were sentenced for crimes committed before they turned 21, according to the Massachusetts Department of Correction.

If the Massachusetts high court affirms the ruling, those affected could either be re-sentenced or become eligible for parole.

"It's not a get out of jail free card," said Greenberg, the defense attorney. "What it is, it's an opportunity for people who were 18, who went to prison for life to now show to a parole board and to a judge maybe that they are deserving of a second chance. It's a big step forward."

Suffolk District District Attorney Kevin Hayden praised the ruling.

"The practice of putting a person behind bars forever, without paying attention to decision-making ability based on age and the science of brain development, should end,” Hayden said.

He also praised his predecessor, U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins, for “early leadership on this issue" because Rollins' office agreed that mandatory life without parole sentences should not be imposed on those under 21.

Ullmann's ruling says such a sentence should only be imposed at the discretion of a judge, while some attorneys like Greenberg go further and contend the life sentences should never be allowed for defendants under 21.

The Massachusetts high court first ruled in 2013 that life without parole sentences violate the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights for people under 18. Since that decision, Ullmann wrote that additional research has shown that "the brains of 18 through 20-year-olds are not as fully developed as the brains of older individuals."

The US Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life without parole sentences for those under the age of 18 constitute cruel and unusual punishment and are unconstitutional.

Correction: The story has been updated to clarify that the courts have barred judges from sentencing defendants under 18 to life without parole for the past decade. We regret the error.


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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