Although not related to Minnesota drunk driving or DWI related issues, we thought this recent decision out of Massachusetts was extremely important with regard to juvenile offenders and worth noting in our blog.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently issued an important opinion regarding juvenile offenders and what forms of punishment will no longer be allowed under the law, regardless of the severity of the crime. Interestingly, the case was based in part on scientific research conducted on the brains of adolescents, a recent trend that has impacted criminal cases across the country.
The ruling from the state’s high court says that life sentences that do not include the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders will no longer be allowed. The Court said that scientific data based on brain scans of adolescents reveals that life without parole amounts to cruel and unusual punishment given the lack of development present in juvenile offenders’ brains.
The ruling applies retroactively, which means those teens that have already been sentenced to life without parole might now have the possibility of getting out of prison one day. Experts say that the law is a surprising turnaround for Massachusetts, a state that has long been known as among the most severe in terms of dishing out juvenile punishment.
Another important aspect of the case, which we’ve discussed previously, is how it relies on scientific data. The case shows how much justices appear to be swayed by data like MRI scans which reveal that younger brains are structurally different than adult brains and have not yet developed fully. Given this lack of development, the justices found that such harsh punishments were unjustifiable. The Court wrote that because the brains of even 18 year olds are not yet fully formed, it is impossible for judges to know for sure that the person is “irretrievably depraved” and thus worthy of being locked up forever.
The Massachusetts opinion goes further than the U.S. Supreme Court did in its recent decision on juvenile punishment. In that case, the Supreme Court found that an automatic sentence for life without parole for juvenile offenders were unconstitutional. However, the Court did not say that such sentences were uniformly unconstitutional; the problem was the fact that they could be applied without judicial oversight and discretion.
Because the ruling will apply retroactively, those inmates who have already served at least 15 years in prison for their crimes will now be considered for parole. Officials say that there are more than 60 inmates in the state who have been sentenced to life without parole, meaning that dozens of offenders might benefit from the recent ruling. Given the recent ruling, Massachusetts will now leave the group of states that commonly dished out such harsh sentences to young offenders. According to statistics, the majority of juveniles who received life without parole last year were found in Massachusetts and four other states. Now, Massachusetts will join Wyoming, Texas and Colorado, among several others that have already ended life without parole for juvenile offenders.
Source: “Mass. SJC bars no-parole life terms for youths,” by Sarah Schweitzer, published at BostonGlobe.com.