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November 12, 2012 (Boston.com)

“Life without parole: Right for some, wrong for others”

Columnist James Alan Fox suggests that Massachusetts change the way it handles defendants convicted of first degree murder.  He writes that “Not all murders are the same in severity, and not all murderers are the same in dangerousness.”

In Massachusetts all defendants convicted of first degree murder are sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole, regardless of any mitigating circumstances surrounding the offense or the offender. By contrast, two dozen states having life without parole on the books maintain provisions for less punitive sentences depending on the circumstances of the offense and the offender.

As one of the states that prohibits parole for first degree murderers, Fox notes, Massachusetts ranks high on the list in terms of the percentage of its incarcerated population having no hope of ever walking free (except for the very remote possibility of executive clemency). According to statistics compiled by The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., 8.7 percent of the Massachusetts state prison population as of 2008 was under a life without parole sentence, a level that ranked third (behind Louisiana and Pennsylvania) and was four times the national average.

“Life without parole makes sense for serial killers, mass murderers, certain repeat violent offenders, and those who rape or torture victims before murdering them,” Fox continued. “However, in Massachusetts life without parole eligibility is mandatory for cases of felony murder, even though homicide may not have been part of the plan. It is also mandatory for those convicted in joint ventures, even if they were not the one to pull the trigger or plunge the knife.”

Fox concluded that it was perhaps time for Massachusetts “to infuse some flexibility into sentences for first degree murder by permitting parole consideration after, say after 30 years, in those cases where mitigation outweighs aggravation.”

Issue Area(s): Sentencing Policy, Incarceration, Collateral Consequences