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In A First, Divided MA High Court Voids Life Without Parole Under 21

Massachusetts' highest court ruled Thursday that anyone under the age of 21 cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, raising the age from under 18. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4–3, finding that such sentences constitute “cruel or unusual punishment” under the Massachusetts Constitution, reports WGBH. “The judge’s findings in this case ... confirm that the brains of emerging adults are similar to those of juveniles,” said Chief Justice Kimberly Budd. The court had ruled in 2013 that defendants under 18 could not be sentenced to life without parole based on the notion that “it is not possible to demonstrate that a juvenile offender is ‘irretrievably depraved,’” thus any such sentence is “cruel or unusual as imposed on a juvenile in any circumstance.”

Thursday’s ruling, in the case Commonwealth v. Sheldon Mattis, extends that finding up to age 21. In 2013, Mattis was convicted of murder in the shooting death of Jaivon Blake in 2011 — when Mattis was 18. He was sentenced to life without parole. His co-defendant, who was 17, was sentenced to 15 years. Thursday’s decision will send Mattis’ case back for resentencing, and opens the door for others in Massachusetts prisons serving life without parole to make a case before the state's parole board. Massachusetts became the first state to forbid life sentences without the possibility of parole for people under 21. Attorneys like Ruth Greenberg, who represented Mattis, have been working for more than a decade to change the way the state system handles young offenders. “It’s a very brave thing the court did to be first, courageous and correct,” Greenberg said. Out of the 1,008 people serving life without parole in Massachusetts prisons in 2022, around one-fifth were ages 18 to 20 at the time of their offense.


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