Posts Tagged: Senator Tarr

Difficult Decisions: Statehouse Juvenile Justice Hearing

On the same day Senate Ways & Means Committee released its FY15 budget, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on Juvenile Justice issues.  At first glance, the Judiciary Committee’s hearing agenda appeared light, containing only ten bills.  Upon closer examination of the bills on the agenda, it was no surprise that the hearing room was packed.  The Essex and Suffolk County District Attorneys, a former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court, Senators Bruce Tarr, Barry Finegold, and Karen Spilka, Representative John Keenan, and the Chairman of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee took part in the hearing.

In late 2013, the BBA’s Council unanimously approved a set of juvenile justice principles supporting the elimination of juvenile life without parole sentences.   Shortly thereafter, the SJC ruled in the Diatchenko case that such sentences were indeed unconstitutional.  Read more about the case and our position here.

The SJC decision specifically calls for juvenile offenders to receive a “meaningful opportunity” for parole, but leaves it to the legislature to define that term.  Many of the bills at Wednesday’s hearing focused on different ways to define this statement.  There was plenty of debate at the hearing and various bills on the docket call for anywhere from 10 to 35 years before juveniles convicted of first degree murder become eligible for parole.

The bills also include various provisions on parole considerations for these offenders.  Listening to the testimony, the following issues came to the fore for legislative consideration:

  • Fairness –  This was the most popular word of the hearing.  What length of time until parole eligibility is fair?  Legislators and panelists alike raised fairness considerations for victims and their families, society generally and specific communities, as well as the defendant.  There were multiple levels of fairness considerations for defendants.   Some testifiers argued for long periods of time due to the heinous nature of these crimes.  Others asked for relative leniency due to the defendant’s age, underdeveloped brains, and potential felony murder conviction.  Multiple testifiers noted that more than 70% of those currently serving juvenile life sentences had co-defendants, 75% of whom are adults.  Furthermore, 30% of those juveniles in prison for life were sentenced to felony-murder, meaning they accompanied another who did the actual killing, and in most cases the older person served a shorter sentence after accepting a plea bargain.
  • Confidence in the justice system –  Those advocating for longer parole eligibility terms touted their confidence in the justice system, stating that only juveniles who committed the most heinous crimes were sentenced to life and thus merited a longer time before parole eligibility.  Those advocating for shorter parole eligibility terms expressed confidence in the parole board’s ability to determine whether a person was adequately rehabilitated before potential release.  They stressed that parole eligibility did not equate to release.
  • Potential for rehabilitation –  Testifiers advocating for shorter parole eligibility terms cautioned against the mere warehousing of convicts, and expressed concern that juveniles sentenced to life with long periods without parole eligibility would suffer due to lack of program and rehabilitative opportunities (priority is given to those closer to potential release) and the challenge of staying in touch with family and friends for such an extended period of time, a parole board consideration.

These are not easy issues, and we will pay close attention as these bills progress through the legislative process.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Public Hearing on Forensic Sciences Comes on the Heels of BBA Drug Lab Report

On Monday, the Boston Bar Association released its Drug Lab Task Force Report making three recommendations including a call for enhanced auditing and oversight of our state drug labs.  The next day, the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security held a public hearing and 4 bills dealing directly with forensic sciences were on the agenda.

All 4 bills would address some of the concerns raised in our Drug Lab Report.  S 1112, filed by Senator Brownsberger, requires all forensic sciences laboratories to be independent; establishes an oversight board; requires that all forensic sciences laboratories be accredited by an accrediting body; and establishes a forensic sciences laboratory ombudsman within the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.  S 1122, filed by Senator Creem, is modeled off one of the recommendations in the BBA’s Getting it Right Report and establishes a forensic sciences advisory board.   S 1153 filed by Senator Moore, requires forensic service providers to be accredited.  The final bill, S 1175, filed by Senator Tarr, requires more oversight of crime labs and seeks to establish a forensic services drug laboratory oversight board within the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

A lot of positive actions have been taken in the wake of mishandling of evidence at our state drug labs.  For example, the Courts worked closely with defense attorneys and prosecutors to come up with policies and procedures for dealing with these cases.  In addition, Governor Patrick appointed David Meier to oversee the central office charged with assessing the criminal cases potentially jeopardized by the mishandling of evidence.  Meier then conducted a case by case review of individuals potentially affected.  Ultimately, Control of the state drug labs was moved from the Department of Public Health to the State Police Forensic Services Group.

We have an opportunity to really get it right within our criminal justice system.  The Executive Branch, the Courts, and all involved have taken steps in the right direction but there’s more to be done.  It’s good to see the Legislature is also thinking of solutions and we hope that these collective actions will help prevent another drug lab incident.

– Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association