An investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, published in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette reveals that that law is not being applied consistently to the most horrific juvenile murder cases, as it was intended.
Pennsylvania has more juveniles serving life without parole than any other state. Pennsylvania has more than 450 individuals now serve life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed under the age of 18. That number represents more than 20 percent of the nationwide total of juvenile lifers.
With Massachusetts and Pennsylvania as a backdrop the U.S. Supreme Court prepares this spring to tackle whether it is “cruel and unusual” punishment to sentence juveniles 14 and under to life without parole for murder.
In Massachusetts, there is no obvious pattern as to why some killers are sentenced to life without parole and others — who committed shocking, grisly crimes such as fatally beating a 2-year-old — escaped the harsh sentence. Juveniles whose crimes approach the cruelty of the teen whose case triggered the passage of the 1996 law have escaped the severe sentence, while spontaneous acts of violence by teenagers with little prior record are punished with life behind bars.
Before the change, juvenile killers could only be sentenced to serve until age 21 unless their case was transferred to adult court.
Since 1996, dozens of teens between the ages of 14 and 16 have been charged with murder in Massachusetts, but only seven have been sentenced to life without parole. In only two cases — the fatal beating with a hammer and the stabbing of a stranger in a school restroom — did their crimes approach the depravity of the murder that spawned the legislation, according to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
Four of the teenage lifers acted impulsively, settling petty disputes with lethal attacks, the review of murder cases shows. Only two of the seven lifers had a record of violent crime, the investigation found, and two had no criminal history at all.
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