BOSTON (AP) - Mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole would be eliminated for teens younger than 18 who are convicted of first-degree murder under legislation filed on Monday by Gov. Deval Patrick.
Under current state law, teens as young as 14 can be tried and convicted as adults for first-degree murder. Conviction on first-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence without parole in Massachusetts.
The bill stems from a U.S. Supreme Court last June that said it was unconstitutional for states to pass laws automatically sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole. The 5-4 decision came in the robbery and murder cases of two 14-year-old youths in Alabama.
Since the ruling, a number of other states have moved to change their laws.
"Every violent felon should be held accountable for their actions, even youth," Patrick said. "But in sentencing, every felon's circumstances should be considered, too, and youth itself is a special circumstance."
The legislation would still allow, under "horrific" circumstances, life sentences without parole for youthful offenders, Patrick said. But the sentence would not automatically be imposed as it for adults convicted of first-degree murder.
Under the bill, judges would have the option to sentence juveniles between the ages of 14 and 18 to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 10-25 years, depending on the nature of the crime and other factors including a teen's intellectual ability and level of maturity, and the likelihood of the individual benefitting from rehabilitation.
"As every parent knows, teenagers are different from adults - they can act in the moment, be impulsive, and be unduly influenced by their peers and by adults," said Gail Garinger, the state's Child Advocate, in a statement.
About 60 inmates are serving life sentences without parole in Massachusetts who were under 18 at the time of the crime. Among the recent high-profile murder cases involving juveniles was that of John Odgren, who was 16 when he stabbed another student to death in a bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in 2007.
The legislation filed by Patrick on Monday would also raise the age of adult criminal responsibility for most crimes to 18, rather than 17 under current law. The change would mean that 17-year-olds would be under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts and would not be sentenced to adult prisons.
Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he supported the change in the juvenile crime age to 18, but took no immediate position on other aspects of the legislation including the elimination of mandatory life sentences without parole for killers under 18. The bill is likely to be referred to the committee after it is formally introduced in the Legislature.