Advocacy Groups Applaud Massachusetts Supreme Court for Banning Life Without Parole for Young People 18-20 in Commonwealth v. Sheldon Mattis

Juvenile Law Center & the Sentencing Project,
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

(Washington, D.C.) - Today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court categorically barred life without parole sentences for individuals aged 18 to 20 convicted of first-degree murder.  

The Sentencing Project, Juvenile Law Center, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center jointly submitted an amicus brief to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in support of Sheldon Mattis, arguing that life without parole sentences for late adolescents are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and Article 26 of the Massachusetts Constitution. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court previously ruled that discretionary life without parole sentences for youth under 18 also violate the state’s ban on cruel or unusual punishment and today’s ruling recognizes that late adolescents are developmentally similar and deserving of similar protections.

Following today’s ruling, the three organizations released the following statements:

“The brain science is clear, just as youth are protected from the harshest punishments because of their immaturity so should emerging adults,” said Kara Gotsch, Acting Executive Director with The Sentencing Project.  “This ruling will make the Bay State’s criminal legal system more equitable and more humane, giving young people a chance at redemption and personal transformation.”

“Today’s decision is a step forward in recognizing that the differences between youth and adults do not disappear on a child’s 18th birthday,” said Tiara Greene, Staff Attorney, Juvenile Law Center. “As recognized by the Court, neither science nor society supports drawing the line at 18. Massachusetts is the first state to set this standard and it is our hope that the nation will follow.”

“With today's ruling, the court has disposed of a long-used constitutional test that was ‘of limited utility’ in the state for determining the proportionality of punishments for young adults," said Andrea Lewis Hartung, Appellate Attorney, MacArthur Justice Center. "It's a positive step forward and sign that Massachusetts and other states recognize that the harshest of sentences with no opportunity for redemption is inappropriate. Moreover, a compelling concurrence from Justice Kafker reaffirms the strong protections afforded to young people under the Massachusetts Constitution.”

While two other states, Washington and Michigan, have judicially barred mandatory life without parole sentences for late adolescents, this decision marks the first state in the nation to categorically bar life without parole sentences – whether mandatory or discretionary – for this population. Mr. Mattis and other 18 to 20 year olds sentenced prior to July 25, 2014 will be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Individuals aged 18 to 20 sentenced on or after today for murder in the first degree will be subject to a minimum term of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after less than 20 years and no more than 30 years. 

About the Expert

Tiara Greene is a staff attorney at Juvenile Law Center who joined the organization in January 2021. She advocates for the rights of youth in the juvenile justice system through litigation, amicus and policy advocacy efforts. Prior to joining Juvenile Law Center, Tiara's legal practice involved labor and employment litigation practice, as well as global date privacy compliance.