A compromise bill moving through the Massachusetts Legislature would keep juvenile killers in prison for at least 20 years. That’s an improvement over the 15 years that resulted from the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that “life without parole” sentences for juvenile murderers are unconstitutional. But the flawed bill does not go far enough.
The SJC’s maddening Christmas Eve decision was based on the argument that the brains of young people are not fully developed, making them prone to rash and violent behavior. The court prohibited life without parole sentences for those under age 18, making those convicted of first-degree murder now eligible for parole after serving 15 years. The state court ruling extended a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.
The SJC decision is retroactive, meaning there are 63 killers in Massachusetts serving life sentences who now will be eligible for parole. Nine of these committed their crimes in Essex County. Among them is Richard Baldwin, who was 16 in 1992 when he bludgeoned 16-year-old Beth Brodie of Groveland to death with a baseball bat.
The SJC ruling will also impact the case of Philip Chism, the Danvers High student charged with the murder of Colleen Ritzer of Andover, his math teacher. If convicted, Chism’s sentence must include the possibility of parole.
In response to an outcry from parents, relatives and friends of the victims of juvenile murderers, state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, and Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, filed a bill that would have required youthful killers to serve at least 35 years before becoming eligible for parole.
The Massachusetts House last week passed a bill, described as a compromise between the rights of victims and compassion for youthful offenders, that did not go quite as far as the Tarr-Finegold proposal. It fully pleased no one.