April 24, 2019 — The Boston Bar Association (BBA) is disappointed that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), in its ruling today in Commonwealth v. Lugo , did not seize the opportunity to find that judges must hold an individualized hearing before imposing a mandatory life-with-parole sentence for second-degree murder by a juvenile.
In an amicus brief in the case (SJC-12546), the BBA argued that the non-discretionary application of a sentence of life with the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of second-degree murder is unconstitutional. For the second time in the past four years, the Court declined to meaningfully address the question, choosing instead to decide this case on separate grounds.
“We continue to maintain that the distinctive characteristics of youth-as demonstrated by social scientists and recognized by both Massachusetts and federal jurisprudence-demand that juvenile defendants be granted an individualized hearing before a mandatory sentence may be imposed,” said Professor David Siegel of New England Law, Boston, co-chair of the BBA’s Amicus Committee.
Committee co-chair, Erin Higgins of Conn Kavanaugh, added, “Scientific understanding of the nature of juvenile brain development continues to evolve rapidly, and our concepts of culpability, rehabilitation, and justice itself need to evolve in response, to take these findings into account in sentencing juveniles.”
In today’s opinion, written by Justice Elspeth Cypher, the state’s highest court did not revisit the question it left open in its 2015 ruling in Commonwealth v. Okoro-whether juvenile homicide offenders require individualized sentencing. As a result, the Court held that the sentencing judge in Lugo did not abuse his discretion in concluding that the defendant was not entitled to such a hearing. In Okoro, the Court stated, “Given the unsettled nature of the law in this area and the indication that it is still evolving, we think it prudent to allow this process to continue before we decide” the question. Today, the Court concluded, “[W]e remain unwilling to revisit our interpretation in regard to individualized sentencing. … We are unpersuaded that the law and science are firmly established to warrant further consideration at this time. In sum, we leave the question open …”
“The BBA’s position-that under Article 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, this type of mandatory sentencing for juveniles is cruel and unusual-is consistent with the BBA’s long-standing opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing,” said Meredith Shih, of Wood & Nathanson, LLP, who drafted the BBA brief. Indeed, since 1991 , the BBA has argued against mandatory minimums and in support of discretionary sentencing that considers the individual characteristics of the defendant and the nature of the offense.
“We remain hopeful that the SJC will soon address the constitutionality of this one-size-fits-all juvenile sentencing,” said BBA President Jon Albano of Morgan Lewis, “and we will continue to seek out opportunities for the BBA to reiterate our argument.”