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Massachusetts Could Loosen Life Without Parole Restrictions For Young People

Justices in the state’s highest court are weighing whether it is unconstitutional to sentence people convicted of murder and aged 18 to 20 to life without parole.

photoillustration of judge using a gavel
Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Getty Images.

By the age of 15, Alfred Jenks was alone. His dad was in and out of prison throughout his childhood, he said. To put food on the table, he sold narcotics. 

“You’re groomed by other individuals in the street life who are older than you,” he told The Appeal in a phone call. “They show you different parcels and avenues and things like that. And ultimately, that led to the situation I found myself in.”  

In 1994, when Jenks was 20, he was involved in a shootout at a nightclub where a stray bullet fatally struck an innocent bystander. He was arrested, put behind bars, and sentenced to life without parole.  

Now, 27 years later, Jenks might get a second chance. His fate could rest in the hands of seven Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court judges who are reviewing two cases and weighing whether it is unconstitutional to  issue life without parole sentences to emerging adults—people ages 18 to 20—who have been convicted of first-degree murder.

“There has to be some mechanism for individuals in that [youthful] category, to not just be thrown away,” Jenks told The Appeal. “They cannot be defined by that one moment as an adolescent.”

One 2011 case under review, Commonwealth v. Watt, concerns Sheldon Mattis who was 18 when prosecutors said he handed a gun to Nyasani Watt. Watt, who was 10 days away from his 18th birthday, shot and killed Jaivon Blake, according to prosecutors. 

Watt was originally sentenced to life without parole. But following a 2013 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that eliminated life without parole sentences for people who were younger than 18 when they were convicted of murder, he was resentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Mattis, however, was considered an adult and given a mandatory life without parole sentence. 

Another case under review, Commonwealth v. Robinson, involves Jason Robinson, who was given a life without parole sentence after being convicted in 2002 of first-degree murder, unlawful posession of a firearm, and armed robbery. He was 19 at the time of the crimes.

Mattis’s attorneys argue that the legal boundary separating people defined as juveniles—younger than 18—from emerging adults is arbitrary. Neuroscience research shows that the brain is not fully developed for emerging adults at age 21, they argue, and people younger than 21 should be provided the same relief as those under 18. 

If the Supreme Judicial Court sides with Mattis, more than 200 people who, like Jenks, committed first-degree homicide after they turned 18 and before they turned 21 could have a chance at a life outside of prison, according to an informal survey conducted by the Committee for Public Counsel Services and shared with The Appeal.  

Ruth Greenberg, one of Mattis’s attorneys, told The Appeal she is optimistic about the trend away from harsh sentencing in the state. “Things have been getting better for children in Massachusetts and federally now, for years,” she said. “When I began my practice in 1985, children as young as 14 could be sentenced to death.” 

However, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a judge can sentence a child to life without parole in the absence of a “permanent incorrigibility” determination, which means a child could be sent behind bars for life even if the court believes they could be rehabilitated. International law prohibits sending children to prison for life without the possibility of parole.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest court, upheld Watts’s and Mattis’s convictions in December 2019. But it remanded the case to the Suffolk County Superior Court for evidentiary hearings to reconsider the current research on brain development in young adults. 

Adriana Galván, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles with expertise in adolescent brain development, and Robert Kinscherff, a professor at Williams James College specializing in forensic and clinical psychology, testified on behalf of Mattis in those hearings in January and February.

In January, Galván testified that the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that deals with reasoning, decision-making and consequences—is still developing until a person’s mid-20s. 

“Adolescents have a higher cognition or more mature cognition than younger kids,” Galván said, “but they too are still in flux in terms of the way that their prefrontal cortex can support decision-making and planning and future orientation.” In a blog post last year for the American Constitution Society, Galván wrote that “there is widespread agreement in the scientific community: the brains of emerging adults are undergoing ongoing maturation in fundamental ways related to emotional regulation, decision-making, and risk-evaluation, even though people in this age range may look (and sometimes act) like adults.”  

Kinscherff testified in February that it is impossible to reliably predict an individual’s capacity for change. “People change over the course of their lives,” he said. “Even adults who have been very problematic, very violent people can change when they are in their thirties and forties. … [T]he further out the prediction goes the shakier the ground that you’re on. And that’s even more the case with adolescents and late adolescents.” 

Research conducted by Laurence Steinberg, an expert who testified on behalf of Robinson in October 2020, found adolescents’ reward systems are especially sensitized in the presence of peers, which may make them more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior. “[A] lot of our work in our laboratory has looked at how the presence of peers affects decision-making and risk-taking among people of different ages,” he testified, “which his [sic] to elevate or increase risky behavior in late adolescence and we don’t see a peer affecting people once they’re 24 or older.” 

This scientific consensus about brain development is motivating changes in sentencing laws. In March, the Washington Supreme Court became the first to extend the federal Supreme Court’s ban on mandatory life without parole for minors to people older than 18, citing neuroscience research. 

“The petitioners have shown that many youthful defendants older than 18 share the same developing brains and impulsive behavioral attributes as those under 18,” the court wrote. “Thus, we hold that these 19- and 20-year-old petitioners must qualify for some of the same constitutional protections as well.” 

But Washington’s ruling only bans mandatory life sentences for people younger than 21, meaning a judge still has the discretion to sentence 18- to 20-year-olds to life without parole. “We’re asking for more,” Greenberg told The Appeal. Mattis’s defense attorneys are seeking a ruling that bans life without parole sentences for all emerging adults, she said.

Other states are moving to enact laws that provide some relief for emerging adults. Illinois is considering a bill that would make a person who committed first-degree murder under the age of 21 eligible for parole after spending 40 years in prison. In April, Washington, D.C., passed a law that allows people who committed a crime after they turn 18 and before they turn 25 to apply for sentence modification. Vermont became the first state to expand juvenile court jurisdiction to 19 in 2020.

Jenks’s memories of his youth seem to align with the research that is bolstering efforts to reduce mandatory sentencing penalties. When he was 20, he said, “there was no thoughts of tomorrow.” The impact of being incarcerated for 28 years wasn’t something he could fathom, Jenks explained. 

For Jenks, risk-taking wasn’t a choice, it was a survival tactic. “Back then, it was just living in the moment and trying to survive. I never thought I would live as long as I’ve lived today, you know, living in that type of lifestyle,” he said. “It was almost to be expected that I would be in the position that I was in at that age. That’s what we’re told. In street life there are two endings: You’re gonna die or you’re gonna go to jail.

Adolescents of color like Jenks are disproportionately detained and confined across the criminal legal system. White people view Black children as young as 10 as less innocent than other children and overestimate the age of Black children by an average of 4.5 years, according to a 2014 study published by the American Psychological Association. More than three quarters of all youth sentenced to life without parole are children of color, according to a 2016 Prison Policy Institute report. 

Children sentenced to life have likely already faced severe hardships. In a national survey of children sentenced to life without parole, published in 2012, The Sentencing Project found that more than half were not attending school at the time that the crime they were accused of was committed, and the overwhelming majority had experienced trauma before they were charged, including witnessing violence in their homes and neighborhoods. Nearly half of respondents reported experiencing physical abuse, and the majority of girls reported histories of sexual abuse.

After Jenks’s brother was murdered in 1999, he said he had a new understanding of what his victim’s family was going through. “That really was almost a catalyst for me to expect better of myself, even if this was my final destination,” he said. He got his GED, and is two courses away from obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Boston University. 

“It’s been a journey. Through introspection and education and obviously, my religion. I’m a Christian. All of these factors combined helped me broaden my perspective and to reform myself,” said Jenks.   

Those who are affected if the court rules in favor of Mattis will face their own set of challenges getting parole. Racial disparities persist in approvals: Nearly 58 percent of people in Massachusetts prisons identify as people of color, compared with 44 percent of the people paroled in 2019. That year, the state’s total parole rate was 64 percent, but only 17 percent for children who became eligible following the 2013 state Supreme Court ruling. 

A March audit of the Massachusetts parole board also found that the board could not provide documentation proving all parolees received required re-entry forms, meaning parolees may not be aware of what constitutes a violation of their parole. Gregory Diatchenko, an activist whose case was the basis of the state Supreme Court ruling that banned life without parole for children under 18, was sent back to prison in 2019. He’d had a positive breathalyzer test at his home and protested at a state prison, a violation of his visitation ban according to the board. In May of last year, the board voted to keep him behind bars for at least two more years.    

If Jenks is released, he hopes to become a social worker or to find work where he can help prevent young people from falling into traps he said are designed to land them in prison. 

“We need to give people a chance,” he said. “Because that’s all anybody ever really wanted was a chance.”