The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association urged state lawmakers on Friday to enact new laws requiring that juveniles who are tried as adults and are sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder serve at least 35 years before they are eligible for parole.
The recommendation, in a letter to the Legislature, was the first proposed response to a state Supreme Judicial Court decision in December that upended the way the Commonwealth handles juveniles convicted of serious crimes like murder.
That decision, based on a 2012 US Supreme Court ruling, declared it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole, the punishment for first-degree murder.
The association, representing district attorneys from across the state, argued that the decision was an insult to the family members of murder victims.
“While not ideal, 35 years of incarceration would provide victims’ families with some sense of justice and provide a small measure of comfort and security to the community in which the murder occurred,” Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, the association’s president, said in the letter.
The state high court decision echoed recent Supreme Court rulings that have found that the brains of teenagers are not fully developed, and so juveniles should not be held to the same standards as adults.
While a conviction for murder in Massachusetts that is not classified as in the first-degree carries a punishment of a life sentence with parole eligibility after 15 years, an adult convicted of murder with premeditation or cruelty or extreme atrocity—which is known as first-degree murder—would lose any eligibility for parole. The Supreme Judicial Court found that juveniles could not be held to that standard.
State courts across the country have issued similar rulings recently, and state governments have reacted with new laws. Wyoming, for instance, passed a law that requires juveniles serve at least 25 years before they are eligible for parole.
The Massachusetts district attorneys said that the 35-year sentence would be appropriate for a juvenile convicted as an adult of first-degree murder.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Republican from Gloucester, welcomed the district attorneys’ recommendation, and said he will introduce legislation addressing the court decision soon.
“I am deeply concerned for the potential threat to public safety and our justice system that may result by inappropriately releasing convicted offenders on parole,” he said.