Massachusetts Says No to LWOP Sentences for Children and Adolescents

On Christmas Eve, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which is the highest court in the Commonwealth, held that sentences of life without the possibility of parole (or LWOP) for people under the age of 18 were unconstitutional, and it struck them down. The court based its ruling on the Eighth Amendment, and it observed that imposing LWOP sentences on minors was “strikingly similar, in many respects, to the death penalty.”

The decision stemmed from two cases of juveniles who were 17 years old when they committed their crimes. It extends the logic of a case from last year in which the U.S. Supreme Court rejected LWOP sentences for two boys who were 14 years old when they killed. The decision also builds on U.S. Supreme Court cases from 2005 and 2010 that rejected, in turn, the death penalty for minors as well as LWOP sentences for minors convicted of non-homicide offenses.

These decisions make sense, and they serve the interests of justice. As the Massachusetts Court explained in its opinion, an LWOP sentence requires—or should require, anyway—a finding that the offender is “irretrievably depraved”—that he’s a lost cause—and we can’t possibly say that about people whose brain is not fully formed or developed at their age. Although science is driving that point home, moreover, we’ve always known from a common-sense standpoint that children are different from adults, even or especially in the case of an irrational, impetuous teenager who kills.

Life is not only imperfect but flawed, messy, and often tragic, but even in the most extreme cases of juvenile violence, we must know in our hearts that we can’t lock up a kid, throw away the key, and say that he or she is beyond all hope or redemption. As if we know. Perhaps because we do know that the heaviest hammers in the world will not deter the most aberrant excesses of adolescents, or perhaps because we know that, in such cases, the world they were brought into shares some of the blame.

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