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SJC ruling only half the battle
By James Alan Fox, Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy, Northeastern University
Published: 01/06/2014

Court Three cheers for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in striking down all sentences of life without parole eligibility for juveniles. In its place, for the more than 60 lifers impacted by the ruling, the next most substantial penalty -- life with parole eligibility after serving 15 years -- will apply. Some of these prisoners, those who already have been incarcerated for longer than that minimum, will, after formal resentencing, start preparing their case for presentation to the Parole Board.

The SJC followed the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court. Over a series of decisions related to juvenile sentencing, including Miller v. Alabama, the highest court in the land has repeatedly maintained that kids are different -- different in brain development and how they assess consequences, different in their susceptibility to negative peer influences to do the wrong thing, and, most critically, different in their ability to change and mature over time.

The Supreme Court majority stated that juveniles should not be held to the same standard of culpability as adults, no matter how heinous the crime. Unfortunately, the Court failed to outlaw juvenile life without parole entirely, only mandatory life without parole, as being totally devoid of any discretion or flexibility. With today’s ruling, the SJC has now taken that final step, at least for Massachusetts.

In its decision, the SJC correctly pointed out that parole eligibility does not guarantee release on parole. It is now up to the Massachusetts Parole Board to decide which of the dozens impacted by today’s ruling are indeed ready for conditional (and supervised) release, and when. Therefore, today’s victory for juvenile justice is only half the battle. It is equally critical that the Parole Board recognize the differences between juvenile and adult murderers and be prepared to make the difficult and usually unpopular move to award parole release when justified.

Many of the parole hearings resulting from today’s ruling will involve the family members of murder victims, some of whom will have felt blind-sided and victimized by the change in law. After all, they had been assured that the person who murdered their loved one would never see freedom again. They may insist that juvenile murderers do not deserve a second chance, no matter how rehabilitated, because there are no second chances for the victims. Of course, that sad truth holds for all forms of homicide below first-degree murder where perpetrators are parole eligible.

I wish the members of the Massachusetts Parole Board the wisdom and courage in handling these difficult and weighty decisions. Particularly in this post-Cinelli era, it is too easy just to take the safe route and continually deny parole, even when a compelling case has been made for release-readiness. Without the Board’s willingness to give juveniles a second chance, today’s gift of parole eligibility will turn out to be an empty gesture.

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission - Author James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University. He is the author of the Boston.com blog "Crime and Punishment". He has written 18 books, including his newest, "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." He has published dozens of journal and magazine articles, and hundreds of freelance columns in newspapers around the country, primarily in the areas of multiple murder, youth crime, school and campus violence, workplace violence, and capital punishment.

Other articles by Fox:


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  6. DarkGable21 on 01/11/2014:

    Very interesting and long overdue. We have to move away from the structual incarceration of everyone who steps out of line. We have stripped every social program and defunded every organization geared to help children and families build better children and then give them long sentences for stepping out of line. This is a start in the right direction.

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