The state’s highest court ruled Thursday that anyone under the age of 21 cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, raising it from under 18. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4–3, finding that it constitutes “cruel or unusual punishment” under the Massachusetts Constitution.
“The judge’s findings in this case ... confirm that the brains of emerging adults are similar to those of juveniles,” Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd wrote in the ruling.
The court had previously 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, essentially 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 to the court 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.
With this decision, 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’s criminal legal system handles young offenders.
“It’s a very brave thing the court did to be first, courageous and correct,” Greenberg said. “The world is, in this regard, a much better place. When I began my practice, children as young as 14 could get the death penalty. They were executing 14-year-olds in Indiana. So the world has changed.”
“This is not a guarantee or a get-out-of-jail free card. This is a possibility, an opportunity.”Ruth Greenberg, attorney who represented Sheldon Mattis
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 governing offense, according to Department of Correction data analyzed by the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School. The number of people who are immediately eligible for parole depends on a final calculation from the state's parole board.
In a statement to GBH News Friday, DOC spokesperson Jason Dobson confirmed that approximately 200 people will meet the criteria for parole hearings.
Offenders will still be required to serve 15 years or a minimum term and make their case to the parole board for a chance to serve the rest of their sentence outside bars.
“This is not a guarantee or a get-out-of-jail free card. This is a possibility, an opportunity,” Greenberg said. “For many people, it’s a last hope. A lot of people this decision will apply to are 70 years old, and they’ve been behaving perfectly with no expectation for 50 years. They’ve done what the science said they would do: they’ve reformed and rehabilitated.”
Budd’s ruling referenced a 2022 decision from Superior Court judge Robert Ullmann, who heard testimony from several forensic psychologists and neuroscientists and concluded that “emerging adults are less able to control their impulses" and that "are more similar to those of [sixteen and seventeen year olds] than they are to those [twenty-one to twenty-two] and older.”
Forensic psychologist and attorney Dr. Stephanie Tabashneck says this decision brings Massachusetts courts “one step closer to being in line with the neuroscience” that shows significant changes to the human brain between the ages of 18 and 21.
“The frontal lobe, which guides executive functioning decision making and emotional regulation, does not develop until the early to mid 20s,” she said. “This is like having a Ferrari engine with smart car brakes.”
Because some brain functions don’t develop until after the age of 21, neuroscientific research introduces the possibility of pushing the age limits even higher, Tabashneck said.
“There’s a question of whether the opinion is truly in line with the science,” she said, “given that discrepancy.”
In the leadup to the decision, some also focused on the racial justice component that such a ruling would have. Researchers at the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, NYU’s Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, and Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute jointly filed an amicus brief, finding that, in Massachusetts, "Black people are serving [life without parole] for offenses at ages 18-20 at a rate more than sixteen times the rate for White people."
Anthony Benedetti, the chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel, said that “law, science and justice prevailed” with Thursday’s ruling.
“It is now unconstitutional to give late adolescents a life-without-parole sentence, and that is important because it shows that ours is a legal system that believes in rehabilitation, not simply in applying draconian, die-in-prison punishments to young, vulnerable people,” Benedetti wrote in a statement to GBH News.
Other advocates celebrated the ruling Thursday. Jessica Lewis, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the state Legislature should take the decision one step further and raise the age of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction so that fewer young people are prosecuted as adults.
“The Supreme Judicial Court is right: It is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence an emerging adult to die in prison,” Lewis wrote in a statement. “This decision is an important step for our criminal legal system – and a lifechanging one for the many Bay Staters now eligible for parole.”
“I’m sure this decision will be very painful for a lot of the families of people who died,” Greenberg said. “But it is a good thing for the state. It costs Massachusetts a lot to keep a bunch of 60-year-olds in prison for life.”
Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden said his office has identified approximately 70 inmates in Suffolk County who will eventually become eligible for parole as a result of the ruling. In a statement, Hayden emphasized that the ruling does not automatically grant parole, and encouraged survivors of applicable homicide cases to reach out with any concerns.
“We know this decision will generate questions among the survivors of homicide victims of both the immediate and distant past, and we want to make sure that those survivors get accurate information about the ruling,” Hayden said. “Our victim witness advocates will help these families and loved ones understand how the SJC decision affects them.”
Attorney Lisa Newman-Polk provided parole representation for Greg Diatchenko, whose landmark 2013 case was the basis of a state Supreme Judicial Court ruling that deemed life-in-prison sentences unconstitutional for those under 18.
“What we see on paper through the case and in the records from the Department of Correction is just such a small fraction of who that human being actually is,” said Newman-Polk, a parole attorney who has represented a couple dozen 14- to 17-year-olds given life sentences for murder. “Sitting down and actually getting to know people, their families, their whole life story, these crimes generally are much more understandable than just, you know, you’re guilty.”
“Life is filled with grays,” she continued. “We have been black and white in an area that really needs that gray granulation, because these situations and life stories are just not black and white.”
Paul Singer and Hannah Reale contributed reporting.