Massachusetts has become the first state in the country to categorically ban life without parole sentences for people under 21 years old.
Massachusetts’s highest court ruled that its ban on life without parole sentences for youth under 18 also applies to “emerging adults,” through age 20. The ruling stems from the case of Sheldon Mattis who participated in a crime at age 18 during which his 17-year-old co-defendant killed someone. The co-defendant’s youth qualified him for parole review after 15 years, but Mattis received a mandatory life without parole sentence because he was 18 years old.
The Sentencing Project joined with the Juvenile Law Center and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center to submit an amicus brief in support of the argument that adolescent brain research makes clear that emerging adults are developmentally similar to youth under 18.
We are proud of the role our research and advocacy played in this important victory.
In the United States, two in five people sentenced to life without parole between 1995 and 2017 were 25 and under at the time of their conviction, despite irrefutable evidence that their younger age contributes to diminished capacity to comprehend the risk and consequences of their actions, as documented in The Sentencing Project’s report, Left to Die in Prison. This research also finds that a staggering two-thirds of those sentenced to LWOP while young were Black, suggesting that being young and Black is even more predictive of receiving LWOP than being Black alone.
This session, The Sentencing Project is working with coalition partners to advance bills to scale back extreme sentencing more broadly in Massachusetts (including House Bills 45 and 3955).
Much work remains to make the criminal legal system more proportionate, fair, and humane, but this victory is an important step toward justice.