Massachusetts court raises minimum age for life without parole to 21

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BOSTON — The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided Thursday to increase the age limit for mandatory life without parole from 18 to 21 years old, marking a significant shift in the state’s approach to sentencing young adults.

The 4-3 ruling, which is seen as a victory for juvenile justice reform advocates, was based on the case of Sheldon Mattis, who was 18 when he was involved in the 2011 murder of a Boston teenager during a gang dispute.

Mattis was sentenced to life without parole, a punishment his attorney, Ruth Greenberg, and other supporters argued was too harsh for someone of his age.

The court’s decision will affect Mattis and others who were between 18 and 20 years old and received life without parole sentences before July 25, 2014, making them eligible for resentencing to life with the possibility of parole after serving 15 years.

Nyasani Watt, Mattis’ co-defendant who was 17 at the time of the crime and the actual shooter, was already serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 15 years.

The ruling does not impact his parole eligibility.

The Massachusetts high court referred to the age group of 18 to 20 as “emerging adults,” recognizing scientific research that indicates their brains are not fully matured and likened them to juveniles in terms of neurological development.

The justices stated that the opportunity for parole does not lessen the gravity of first-degree murder charges but acknowledges the potential for change and maturity in young offenders.

Advocates for juvenile justice, such as Lael Chester from Columbia Justice Lab’s Emerging Adult Justice Project, supported the ruling, emphasizing the importance of recognizing the unique developmental stage of emerging adults.

However, the three dissenting justices argued that sentencing decisions should be made by the legislature and maintained that life without parole is an appropriate punishment for adults 18 and older convicted of first-degree murder.

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell and Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden have acknowledged the ruling’s implications.

Hayden’s office is preparing to eventually offer parole eligibility to approximately 70 inmates affected by the decision, while also ensuring that victims’ families are informed of their options going forward.

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