Following the BBA Council’s unanimous approval of a set of juvenile justice principles supporting the elimination of juvenile life without parole sentences, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) ruled in the case of Diatchenko vs. District Attorney for the District & Others that these sentences are indeed unconstitutional. The plaintiff, Gregory Diatchenko, who had been serving a life without parole sentence for a murder he committed in 1981 at age 17, is immediately eligible for parole. In addition, due to the retroactive implications for other juvenile life without parole convicts who have served at least 15 years, roughly 63 inmates will now become parole eligible for the first time. However, as underscored by a recent editorial in the Boston Globe, “eligibility for parole” merely entitles a convict to a hearing. At that point it is up to the parole board to consider whether the prisoner has changed and taken full responsibility for his or her actions.
The BBA has long supported bills abolishing the juvenile life without parole sentences in prior legislative sessions. The dialogue gained further momentum recently after last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama which held that juvenile life without parole sentences for minors are a “cruel and unusual” punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment. Judges must consider the defendants’ youth and the nature of the crime before handing down a sentence without parole.
The SJC’s decision went beyond mere compliance with the Miller holding, explaining that the judges considered current scientific research showing that adolescent brains are not yet fully developed structurally or functionally before the age of 18. Thus, a judge cannot ascertain with any reasonable degree of certainty that a juvenile is irretrievably depraved and deserving of the life without parole punishment.
The SJC’s holding supports most of the substance of the BBA’s approved principles. But the BBA also calls for individualized evidentiary sentencing hearings for juveniles, considering a number of issues specific to juveniles in addition to traditional factors required by law, as well as a statutory right to counsel at parole hearings for juveniles.
So what comes next? Parole boards will begin hearing the cases of those juveniles sentenced to life without parole and making their determinations. Furthermore, the legislature may put bills on the fast track to passage in order to bring the laws into compliance with this ruling. We at the BBA applaud the SJC for their ruling and look forward to these next steps.
– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association