Life Without Parole Policy Symposium Recap

On March 2, the BBA Government Relations Department hosted a Policy Symposium on life-without-parole sentences. The panel, which discussed the merits of legislation that would abolish life without parole as a mandatory sentence for first-degree murder, was moderated by the Hon. Geraldine Hines, a retired Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court and current Visiting Professor at Boston College Law School with extensive experience in civil rights and civil liberties issues, and included Representative Liz Miranda of the 5th Suffolk District, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance Liam Lowney, Director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts Rahsaan Hall, and community activist Karter Reed.

Justice Hines opened by situating the issue and noting that this discussion would not have been possible in the past, which reflects the progress that Massachusetts has made in criminal justice. In 2018, Massachusetts passed a sweeping reform bill that addressed issues ranging from cash bail to mandatory minimum sentences. However, Justice Hines noted, it is important to remember that although progress has been made, there are still over 1,000 people serving life without parole sentences in Massachusetts, the second highest proportion in the country.

Justice Hines then introduced the panel speakers, highlighting how their personal experiences and advocacy work made them uniquely qualified to speak on this issue. She gave each speaker an opportunity to share their perspectives on the proposed legislation and how their experiences had shaped that position.

Representative Liz Miranda related her background growing up in the Dudley Triangle in Roxbury to her efforts in racial justice and criminal justice reform advocacy. She has a personal connection to criminal justice because her own brother and father were incarcerated and her brother was killed by gun violence, just six months before she took office. Representative Miranda explained that although she originally co-filed H.1520, which would not be retroactive and would allow eligibility for parole only after 35 years, she is now advocating for H.1542, which is retroactive and would allow eligibility for parole after 25 years.

Karter Reed delivered his testimony next. He told his personal story of being convicted of second-degree murder at sixteen and incarcerated for twenty years. He explained that during his incarceration, he was able to reflect on his actions and take accountability for the pain he had inflicted upon the victim’s family. He is now an advocate for abolishing life without parole because he believes that those who have made mistakes in their past should have an opportunity to take accountability and better their lives.

Liam Lowney shared his perspective. He prefaced his testimony by stating that, while the MOVA board opposes an end to life without parole, he cannot speak for all victims and does not pretend that all victims feel the same about this issue. He said he only intended to share his family’s personal experience.

Mr. Lowney said that his sister, Shannon Lowney, was murdered while working at a Planned Parenthood in Brookline in 1994. The facts of the case demonstrated that the murder was pre-meditated, and the perpetrator went on to kill more people before being apprehended. His sentence, life without the possibility of parole, was the only way that the victims’ families could know that he would never harm anybody else again. Mr. Lowney argued that the legislation to retroactively abolish life without parole would upend sentences that were set years ago, forcing families to go to court and sit through a hearing on their loved one’s murder again.

Rahsaan Hall explained that his background lies at the intersection of law enforcement and criminal justice reform advocacy, as a former prosecutor and now advocate. Mr. Hall explained why he advocates for restorative justice and believes that most prisoners are looking for ways to take accountability for their actions. He also noted that it is important to remember which victims’ voices get privileged in this conversation, because statistics show that sentencing tends to be harsher when the victim is white than when the victim is a person of color.

Justice Hines reminded the group that life without parole was pushed by criminal justice reform advocates in the 1980s as an alternative to the death penalty. She asked them to share their opinions on what it would mean to abolish the policy that is intended to serve as a substitute for the death penalty, and thus undo the compromise that was reached back then. Mr. Hall said that that was a different time, and that different times call for different compromises. Mr. Reed agreed with Mr. Hall and said that there has been an evolving standard of moral decency since the death penalty was abolished. Also, he believes that the criminal justice system was never designed for people to die in prison, making the life without parole sentence even more senseless.

Justice Hines asked the group their opinion on the prospect of this legislation succeeding. She reminded the public that nobody has a right to parole, making the justification for this legislation more complex. Representative Miranda said that the current legislation was sent to study, effectively killing it for the remainder of the 2019-20 session, and that she had her hopes set on next term. She added that the bill would probably be redrafted to include more survivors’ voices and that the hearings they have held on this issue thus far have elicited great interest but may not have given all populations an equal chance to be heard. Mr. Hall also said that working on this legislation will have a symbolic effect, catalyzing a narrative shift that is very needed in the way in which criminal justice reform is framed today.

Justice Hines asked Mr. Lowney his thoughts on the stories of redemption of people who were sentenced to life without parole and have completely changed their lives as a way to take accountability for their actions. Mr. Lowney said that he was not suggesting that there not be programming and other opportunities for prisoners to work to transform themselves, but that the issue is the inability to know who is intent on changing their life and who is still a violent criminal. It is an issue of public safety. Mr. Reed contrasted that the most violent offenders will not be granted parole, even if they are eligible for it. The Parole Board will still have the authority to keep somebody in prison for life if they believe that person will pose a threat to public safety.

The panel opened to questions from the audience. Audience members expressed concern with the large population of inmates serving sentences of life without parole in Massachusetts, and engaged in discussion with panel members about how the criminal justice system could become more rehabilitative and less punitive. Panel members suggested investing in victim assistance, having deeper conversations about the system among affected communities, and electing more people of color to the state legislature.

In all, it was a moving and thoughtful conversation. The BBA is grateful to the panel speakers and the attendees for engaging in this discussion and is looking forward to continuing this conversation in the future.

-Lucia Caballero
Government Relations Assistant
Boston Bar Association