In my previous post on Christmas Day, I wrote briefly about the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s (SJC) decision earlier this week barring life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. The SJC’s concerned the case of Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 in 1981 when he murdered a man in Kenmore Square. He has served thirty years of a life sentence, and the court ruled that he can be considered for parole immediately.
The legal and news media are all abuzz about this decision, primarily because the decision is retroactive, meaning that juveniles previously sentenced to life in prison, can now be eligible for parole. It may also be possible to have their sentences reviewed entirely.
Is this a wise decision, based on sound medical science regarding juvenile brain development being incomplete, or is it “junk science,” ignoring the voluntary choices that these youths made to commit horrific acts of murderous violence? As with so many things in life, it depends on who you ask. Ask a doctor who leans toward a law-and-order attitude, and he or she will tell you that these youthful murderers didn’t commit the crimes they did because they were under a certain age of “development,” but rather because they are simply violent and morally depraved. Ask a liberal doctor the same question, and you’ll get an opposite answer. Ask a criminal defense lawyer, and you’ll hear that the court’s decision is a fair and just one; ask a prosecutor and you’ll hear how it strains reasoning, and how it handcuffs police and prosecutors in punishing and incarcerating dangerously violent criminals from the public.