Mass. Ruling Seen As 'Sea Change' In Young Adult Sentencing

By Chris Villani | February 23, 2024, 7:32 PM EST ·

A middle aged Black man sits at a desk. He has a pleasant expression on his face, and is wearing a navy-striped sweater

Mac Hudson, a community liaison coordinator with Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts, at his office in Boston. Hudson, who said he got caught up in "street life" as a teenager, served more than 30 years in prison before being granted parole in November 2021. He said his release gave him an opportunity to show that he was a different man now than before he was locked up. (Chris Villani | Law360)

Jay Blitzman, a former public defender and retired Massachusetts juvenile court justice, recalls with a chuckle the time he discussed "The Shawshank Redemption" with about 65 incarcerated people, many of them serving life sentences, during a visit to a state prison in Concord, Massachusetts.

He asked them whether they had seen the 1994 prison drama, based on a Stephen King novella, and what their favorite scene in the movie was. The majority said it was the scene when Morgan Freeman's character, a convicted murderer named Red, goes before the parole board after 40 years in prison and tells the hearing officers why he feels regret for his crime.

"I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime," Freeman says. "I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone, and this old man is all that's left."

Red is granted parole. But, as Blitzman points out, "That's the movie. That is not the reality."

For many people in prison who have spent decades locked up for crimes committed when they were teenagers, the scene still resonates. Now, advocates pushing to end sentences of life without parole for so-called emerging adults — those ages 18 through 20 — say they see a possible pathway to nationwide change following a recent ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court finding such sentences unconstitutional.

"This ruling is exceedingly important," Blitzman said. "Obviously, in Massachusetts, where you have about 200 incarcerated individuals who now have the opportunity to have a parole hearing at least at some point in their life. But it is also incredibly significant in terms of the national landscape."

The SJC's 4-3 ruling last month in Commonwealth v. Sheldon Mattis is the first case in the nation to issue a sweeping declaration that no one under the age of 21 who commits a crime should serve life without the possibility of parole. The court's holding means more than 100 people serving life sentences are immediately eligible for a parole hearing.

The January decision comes more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2021 ruling in Miller v. Alabama , which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. That decision was followed a year later by the SJC's own ruling that life without parole for those under 18 also violated the Massachusetts state Constitution.

Since then, numerous jurisdictions have recognized that emerging adults should be treated differently than fully grown adults.

Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, writing for the majority in the SJC's decision in Mattis last month, noted that the District of Columbia now provides a chance at sentence reduction for those who committed crimes before they turned 25. Illinois, Colorado, California and Wyoming also have laws that can afford certain youthful offenders the chance to get out of prison at some point in their lives.

And while state high courts in Washington and Michigan have also recently ended the concept of mandatory life without parole for offenders under 21, those rulings, along with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Miller, have still left the door open for judges to make a determination at the time of sentencing that a parole opportunity should not be granted.

"What Massachusetts did went beyond all that," Blitzman said. "It pushed the envelope."

A First-Of-Its-Kind Ruling

Sheldon Mattis was convicted of first-degree murder in 2013 and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Mattis had turned 18 eight months before the 2011 homicide, and, while the SJC went on to uphold his conviction on appeal, the court ordered an evidentiary hearing to delve into whether the sentence should stand.

Following arguments and expert testimony, a Superior Court justice ruled in 2022 that mandatory sentences of life without parole for those ages 18 to 20 violates the state Constitution. The case was then sent back to the SJC, where Mattis argued more broadly that any life without parole sentence for someone in that age bracket should be struck down.

In the court's majority opinion in Mattis' latest appeal last month, Justice Budd leaned heavily on experts who agreed that emerging adults exhibit different characteristics relative to older adults, including being "more impulsive, more concerned with their immediate circumstances, and less able to envision future consequences."

"All of the other experts, including the Commonwealth's expert, agreed that the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with controlling impulses, is among the last brain regions to develop, and continues developing until the early to mid-twenties," the chief justice wrote.

Justice Budd said both "precedent and contemporary standards of decency" guided the majority in the landmark ruling. She also cited decisions by governing bodies in other countries, including a 2020 law in the United Kingdom banning life without parole for offenders under age 21 and the Supreme Court of Canada's unanimous 2022 holding that all life without parole sentences are unconstitutional regardless of age.

In a concurrence, Justice Scott Kafker noted that the ruling came as a follow-up to what he called the court's previous "trailblazing decision" in 2013's Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist. , in which the SJC banned life without parole sentences for individuals under the age of 18.

In both Diatchenko and Mattis, Justice Kafker said, the court had been guided by the best available science.

"In the instant case, we are presented with comprehensive fact finding evaluating further advancements in developmental cognitive neuroscience and developmental psychology, demonstrating that eighteen through twenty-year-olds share the same characteristics that distinguished juveniles from adults in Diatchenko I and that rendered them less culpable and more capable of change," Justice Kafker wrote.

But the SJC, which resolves most cases unanimously, was sharply divided in deciding Mattis. A dissent penned by Justice David A. Lowy argued that barring life without parole for those under 21 is a job for lawmakers, not the court.

"For the crime of murder in the first degree, the legislature has deemed the mandatory imposition of life without the possibility of parole to be the appropriate punishment for adults eighteen and older convicted of this offense," Justice Lowy wrote. "While we have an obligation to intervene when the legislature acts unconstitutionally, unless the punishment the legislature imposes is 'so disproportionate' that it 'shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity,' we must exercise restraint and uphold it."

Breaking Away From "Street Life"

Advocates for abolishing life without parole for juveniles argue that recent scientific studies have shown that certain brain functions are not fully developed by the age of 18 and that the age of "peak offending" is around 19 to 20 years old. The brain tends to be fully matured and developed by around age 25, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Committing crimes — even violent ones — at that age is not necessarily indicative of a person who will continue to break the law the rest of their life, advocates and researchers say.

It's research that rings true for Mac Hudson. At 52, sitting in his office at Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts in a 10-story building in Boston's financial district, he feels a world away from the state prisons where he served more than three decades. He says he feels just as distant from the person he was in the late 1980s when, as a 17-year-old caught up in what he called "street life," he was arrested for multiple crimes, including murder.

"When I thought of a future, that's not something you really think of when you're in the streets," Hudson said. "Most of my peers, including myself, thought I was going to die. It was a sense of hopelessness that a lot of kids like myself had at the time, with the idea that you want to be better, you want to eventually be something, but what that something is, you don't really know."

Hudson said he started drifting to the one thing he thought he could believe in: "this makeshift world we call street life."

Following a 1990 trial, Hudson was convicted of second-degree murder, along with armed assault with intent to murder, armed assault with intent to rob and a gun charge. He later pled guilty to manslaughter in the death of another individual.

Hudson denies committing the murder, but admits that his lifestyle is what put him in the position to be involved with the criminal justice system.

"All I understood was the environment around me," he said. "You kind of create this caricature of who you are as a youngster. You want to be respected in a place where you are not respected, you want to be seen in a world that does not acknowledge you."

Hudson says his work today as a community liaison with Prisoners' Legal Services keeps him busy; his days are packed with community events and meetings. But he also finds time for hosting family events, and even had the chance to spend a couple of weeks in Hawaii.

He says he wants others to have the chance to earn the same opportunities that he now has.

"If you just lock a kid away for his or her entire life, despite that change that's obvious to folks around them, then what type of system are we living in?" Hudson said.

Following the Science

In the majority opinion in Mattis, Justice Budd cited scientific studies published in the years following the U.S. Supreme Court's Miller decision suggesting that adolescents around the age of 16 are as good as most adults in what is known as "cold cognition," or the ability to make decision in the absence of emotionally arousing situations.

Robert Kinscherff, the executive director of the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Law360 that most 16-year-olds are in a good position cognitively to offer medically informed consent, make reproductive decisions or participate in their own defense at trial. However, the situation changes under "hot cognition," Kinscherff said.

"They remain more impulsive, more reckless, less likely to consider options and more likely to respond to the immediacy of perceived rewards rather than to take a long-term view," he said. "And they remain vulnerable to peer influence, especially if they are in the physical presence of peers."

These cognitive functions can be further affected by stressors like racism, poverty and adversity including childhood abuse or trauma, Kinscherff wrote in a 2021 white paper on the science of late adolescence that was meant to serve as a guide for attorneys, judges and policymakers. Adolescents who have experienced one or more of these stressors are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, according to the research.

"However, while these experiences pose developmental challenges, they do not dictate fate, as late adolescents are also remarkably resilient, and their developing brains are poised for positive learning through interventions and rehabilitation," Kinscherff wrote.

Kinscherff said the same science applies with equal force to the hypothetical straight-A college student who, after staying out of trouble his whole life, gets picked up by the police after being found drunk and naked along with 30-odd other undergrads on a Florida wharf during spring break.

"Same brain, same kid, different social context, and making what I'm sure he will agree the next morning was a terrible decision to be streaking up and down the marina with three dozen of his newly found friends," Kinscherff said. "Now, take that same kind of context, and arm him."

A Patchwork Approach for Now

In the weeks since the Mattis decision, Kinscherff says he has heard from attorneys and advocates around the country who are trying to figure out how to incorporate the landmark ruling and the underlying arguments into their own advocacy.

Douglas Berman, a professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law who specializes in criminal sentencing, said it is "inevitable that Mattis will be cited around the country."

While the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue in Miller and in a predecessor case, 2010's Graham v. Florida , which found that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes, the justices have shown little interest in revisiting the issue in recent years.

"That's where this becomes a local story in that in more conservative states, there is neither going to be state Supreme Court justices nor an atmosphere that would be very supportive of extending some of these limitations on LWOP sentences," Berman said. "Whereas in more progressive states, there may be more than a few justices and more than a few advocates who are going to push that way."

The patchwork approach is an exercise in federalism not unlike the use of the death penalty, which for decades has been largely dependent on where a crime takes place. State high courts, Berman added, could be emboldened to follow Massachusetts' lead with the knowledge that there are no significant Eighth Amendment cases in the top court's pipeline.

But the issue of life without parole is being litigated at the state level. Although the case is not specifically related to juveniles, the top court in Pennsylvania is set to consider whether certain automatic life sentences are unconstitutional as it hears an appeal from a man convicted of murder in 2014 who argues that he was an accomplice, not the actual killer.

"I do think that this is another interesting version of the laboratories of democracy," he said.

Martin Healey, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer for the Massachusetts Bar Association, called the Mattis ruling a "sea change."

The effects will be felt most acutely, of course, in Massachusetts, as all individuals who were sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as young adults are now eligible for parole hearings.

In her majority opinion, Justice Budd stressed that the court is not saying that any individual now eligible should necessarily be paroled. But the ruling is still likely to keep the state bar busy.

"The court is going to feel the impact of its decision with the sheer number of cases that are going to be filed in the Superior Court," Healey told Law360, adding that the impact will likely extend beyond the Bay State borders, albeit more slowly.

"I definitely think it is going to have a wide, sweeping effect," Healey said. "It's going to happen incrementally, but surely it will occur, and I think you'll see various states react to it, some soon and others following suit as the years go on."

Blitzman, the retired juvenile court judge, said that how big a national impact Mattis will have remains to be seen, but it "certainly creates a road map for consideration of the issue."

A Beacon of Hope

Hudson told Law360 he turned down a plea deal that would have had him serve 18 to 20 years because he did not want to admit to a crime he maintains he did not commit. He went to trial thinking that it would be like the trials he watched as a kid on "Perry Mason," he says, but the "aha" moment of vindication never came, and he was convicted.

During his time in prison, Hudson and other incarcerated people worked to bring cultural programs, religious programs and outside speakers in an effort to "deglamorize street life" and bridge the gap between those in prison and the outside world. That programming allowed him to embark on a journey of self-discovery that he says changed his life. 

Denying him a chance at parole, he says, would have amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment, because I had changed as a human being. I had come to understand things about myself, and I could participate greatly in the world."

Advocates note that allowing someone the chance for parole does not mean that de facto life sentences will be eliminated. For instance, Hudson, who was always eligible for parole, unsuccessfully went before the parole board three times before finally being released in November 2021.

Just before dashing off to a meeting at the Massachusetts State House, Hudson told Law360 that he would love to find the time to relax and travel more, but his mind is first and foremost in his work.

"When I leave this world, I want to be in good company," he said. "I want to be in the company of Martin [Luther King Jr.], Malcolm [X] and others who really advocated and gave their all to make sure the next generation doesn't experience what I did."

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

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