, Newburyport, MA


January 8, 2014

Justice should not be conditional

I encountered a friend whose teenage daughter was murdered by a teenager decades ago. I made this a personal, unannounced pilgrimage in order to seek guidance as to whether I should engage in a circulating, online petition to bolster victim’s rights in Massachusetts. I wanted to understand if lending support was warranted and even desired by my friend and her family.

The issue had suddenly burst onto the news circuits and social medial channels that the Supreme Judicial Court had made a startling announcement. Teenagers who had committed terrible crimes were now suddenly eligible for parole years later as adults.

At the heart of the issue is the SJC ruling, as well as a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama. The rulings address the issue of justice applied to juveniles and whether they are tried as adults if punishment of life without parole is legal. The arguments center around the level of maturity of the offender. Specifically, the brains of juvenile offenders have not developed or “grown” sufficiently, which is expected to occur by early to mid-20s. This is the assertion of psychologists that have empowered or compelled parole boards to hold hearings on individuals incarcerated for life. Is life without parole contrary to the Eighth Amendment ban of cruel and unusual punishment?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling establishes a standard of rehabilitation. Can the individual be rehabilitated? If so, and the crime occurred at a developmental level of immaturity, parole may be issued. However, the recent Massachusetts ruling is devoid of this standard. Without it, if the offender was immature, then he or she could be pardoned with a parole.

My friend responded to my inquiry in ways I never imagined — with tears in her eyes. I saw the pain of a mother who was reliving the horrors of the naked truth that her child had died in a terrible way. There was little discussion about the merits and deficits of the ruling. Only pain, confusion and utter disgust that this ruling was never revealed to the families of victims in advance. They learned about it like the rest of us did, by reading the newspapers, watching the news on television or hearing it on the radio. This on the eve of Christmas!

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