News Releases
January 11, 2024

BBA Welcomes SJC Decision Barring Life-Without-Parole for Emerging Adults

Letter or Statement

Court Adopts Arguments of Amicus Brief Joined by BBA

The Boston Bar Association (BBA) welcomes today’s decision of the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), ending life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences for defendants aged 18 through 20 at the time of their offenses. In a pair of cases captioned Commonwealth v. Mattis and Commonwealth v. Robinson, a four-justice majority agreed, in part, with an amicus brief filed by a host of retired judges and joined by the BBA and the Massachusetts Bar Association.

The majority opinion, by Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, extends the existing ban on LWOP sentences beyond the threshold of age 18 that the SJC imposed in its 2013 Diatchenko ruling, because, as the amici had argued, science and experience demonstrate conclusively that cognitive abilities are still developing in this cohort of “late adolescents” and the likelihood of rehabilitation is higher than in older adults. In sum, the arguments that led the Court to hold a decade ago that any LWOP sentence is unconstitutional as applied to minors are equally valid for their slightly older counterparts.

Specifically, the SJC relied on findings by the trial court judge that, “emerging adults (1) have a lack of impulse control similar to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in emotionally arousing situations, (2) are more prone to risk-taking in pursuit of rewards than those under eighteen years and those over twenty-one years, (3) are more susceptible to peer influence than individuals over twenty-one years, and (4) have a greater capacity for change than older individuals due to the plasticity of their brains.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Scott Kafker agreed with the joint amicus brief’s additional argument that allowing LWOP sentences for emerging adults after an individualized hearing—an approach proposed by the Suffolk, Northwestern, and Berkshire District Attorneys’ Offices—would require a trial judge to do the impossible: discern which young defendants are incapable of rehabilitation at any age (“permanently incorrigible”) and should therefore be condemned to die in prison.

The BBA’s participation in these cases builds on its years of advocacy expressing concern about the use of mandatory minimum criminal sentences, the treatment of young people in the justice system, and the pernicious and persistent racial and ethnic disparities implicated in sentencing throughout that system. In 2018, the BBA filed amicus briefs in Commonwealth v. Lugo and Commonwealth v. Lutskov, arguing for individualized sentencing and urging the Court to build on its own jurisprudence in this area by following scientific advances in brain development.

“Today’s ruling is another step forward by the SJC toward a legal system that is more just, by recognizing what science has established: the diminished culpability of late adolescents and their heightened capacity to turn their lives around,” said BBA President Hannah L. Kilson. “This puts individual determinations where they belong: in the hands of the Parole Board, which is charged with exercising its discretion in deciding whether eligible individuals have shown they are no longer a threat to public safety.”

This decision is the first of its kind in the nation and will result in an opportunity—but no guarantee—of parole after fifteen years for those who are currently serving LWOP sentences for crimes committed at ages 18 through 20 if they were imposed before July 25, 2014. For the remainder, and prospectively, parole eligibility will be available after 20 to 30 years, based on factors determined at the time of sentencing.

The brief was drafted by Kenneth J. Parsigian, Avery E. Borreliz, and Erin M. Haley, attorneys from Latham & Watkins, a BBA sponsor firm. A variety of other amici from the scientific and legal fields also argued for this outcome.


“Amicus Curiae” means, literally, “friend of the court.” Since 1975, the BBA has filed amicus briefs on matters related to the practice of law or the administration of justice. The 2023-2024 BBA Amicus Committee is co-chaired by David Zimmer of Goodwin Procter LLP and Christina Miller of Suffolk University Law School.