(Rahul Desai)Should a 14-year-old convicted of murder automatically be put behind bars for the rest of his or her life, without any chance of parole….ever?
The Supreme Court doesn’t think so. Last June, in a 5-4 decision, the highest court in the land ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
Although nearly a year has passed since the court issued that opinion, Massachusetts law hasn't changed. Under current state law, teens as young as 14 who are charged with murder in the Bay State bypass juvenile court so they can be tried as adults; if they are convicted of first-degree murder, they face a mandatory term of life imprisonment without any chance of parole. Advocacy groups like the Massachusetts Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth point to the Supreme Court decision and say that state law is now illegal and needs to change.
In an effort to raise awareness of this issue, a group of Northeastern University students held an event on April 17 titled “Journalism & Juvenile Justice: How Your Sentences Affect Theirs,” a panel discussion that explored the role the media plays in juvenile sentencing reform. It featured several prominent speakers, including former governor Michael Dukakis; crime professor James Alan Fox; communications professor Sarah J. Jackson; Gail Garinger, the child advocate for the state of Massachusetts; juvenile court judge Leslie E. Harris; and Joshua Dohan, director of the youth advocacy division of the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services.
The students responsible for organizing the event were Nicholas Fei, Kaitlyn Rhodes, Paula Christovich, Chris Corey, Hilary Gabso, and Kristin Minish. Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy moderated the discussion.
(Disclosure: The event was co-sponsored by the New England chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and I am currently president of the chapter).
A number of high-profile criminal cases were referenced during the wide-ranging discussion, from the 1997 murder trial of Eddie O’Brien to the more recent conviction of Nathaniel Fujita.
Dohan said there are 63 people in Massachusetts prisons serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed before they were 18.
Fox, a noted crime expert who writes for the “Crime & Punishment” blog on Boston.com, told the panel that Massachusetts ranks third in the country for its percentage of prisoners who are serving life without parole sentences, which is four times the national average. “We have an incredibly rigid system,” said Fox.
Fox spoke about the furor that sparked when he wrote this blog post about Fujita, in which he questioned whether mandatory life-without-parole sentences are appropriate for all murder cases. It generated quite a debate online, and received over 300 comments.
Harris brought his perspective from his experience in Suffolk County Juvenile Court, where he’s been an associate justice since 1994. He said he doesn’t believe children should be tried and sentenced as adults.
“These are not short adults, these are children,” said Harris. “Juvenile cases should be in juvenile court, regardless of the charge.”
Many of the panelists’ concerns about media coverage were echoed by Cara Lisa Berg Powers, co-director at Press Pass TV, a nonprofit media organization based in Boston. She appeared before the panel and spoke about her organization’s “Respect in Reporting” campaign, which promotes “reporting that is compassionate, ethical and solution-oriented.” The initiative provides a set of guidelines that were adapted from the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics and recommendations by families who have lost children to murder. The guidelines can be viewed at http://respectinreporting.presspasstv.org.
The student organizers of “Journalism & Juvenile Justice: How Your Sentences Affect Theirs” said they’ve received positive feedback from those who attended the April 17 panel discussion. They were even asked by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a program based at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, to take the panel “on the road” and hold a similar event in Atlanta.
“To me, personally, the panel was a success,” said Fei, a senior communication studies student who co-chaired the organizing committee. “We were able to get some key players on board and engaged. Great points were raised. I was very happy with how it turned out.”
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