The Massachusetts High Court rules that younger adults cannot be sentenced to life without parole.

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts' highest court ruled Thursday to raise the minimum age at which a person can be sentenced to mandatory life without parole from 18 to 21 — a narrow 4-3 decision that Juvenile justice advocates are acknowledging that as progress.

The ruling came in the case of Sheldon Mattis, who was convicted of murdering a Boston teenager in 2011 as part of a gang feud. Mattis was 18 at the time of the shootings and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Mattis' attorney, Ruth Greenberg, called the release of the verdict "a very good day."

Greenberg said, "People who are 18 are more like people who are 17 than people who are 35. They are capable of making changes, and often their decisions at that young age are completely their own. Were not." "It's bold and it's right, and other courts will follow suit."

As a result of Thursday's decision by the state Supreme Judicial Court, Mattis and other "emerging adults" who were 18 to 20 years old at the time of their crimes were sentenced to life in prison without parole before July 25, 2014. He will likely be sentenced to life in prison. Paroled after 15 years.

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Mattis' co-defendant Nyasani Watt, who pulled the trigger, was only 17 at the time of the murder and received a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 15 years. Thursday's decision will not change his ability to seek parole.

According to the court, until the ruling, Massachusetts was one of 10 states that required people aged 18 to 20 who were convicted of first-degree murder to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In their decision, the judges called people that age "emerging adults."

“Advances in scientific research have confirmed what many people know well through experience: the brains of emerging adults are not fully mature. “In particular, the scientific record strongly supports the argument that emerging adults have the same basic neurological characteristics as adolescents,” the judges wrote.

The court also wrote that "by providing an opportunity for parole, we do not diminish the seriousness of the crime of murder in the first degree because it was committed by an emerging adult."

Advocates appreciated the decision.

“The years of emerging adulthood are a time of intense brain development. "These youth are driven by impulse, not able to fully think through the consequences and are heavily influenced by peers," said Lyle Chester, director of the Emerging Adult Justice Project at the Columbia Justice Lab.

"Like people under the age of 18, emerging adults are highly likely to desist from crime as they mature," he said.

The three dissenting justices wrote that decisions about criminal punishment should be left to elected officials.

“The power to define an offense and fix its punishment is an exclusively legislative function,” the judges wrote. "For the crime of murder in the first degree, the legislature has deemed a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole to be an appropriate punishment for adults eighteen and older."

Other critics, including some prosecutors, have also argued that the decision should be left to lawmakers. More than 200 people are serving life sentences without parole in Massachusetts prisons for murders committed by 18, 19 and 20-year-olds.

Watt was 10 days away from turning 18 when Mattis handed him a gun and Watt shot 16-year-old Javon Blake in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, authorities said. Mattis and Watts were jointly tried and convicted of first-degree murder.

Mattis had argued that his mandatory sentence of life without parole violated the prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment because he was under the age of 22 at the time.

The Supreme Judicial Court in 2020 ordered a lower court to gather more information about brain development so it can decide whether to extend the ban to life without parole for young adults.

Nearly a decade ago, a Massachusetts court finished it Life without the possibility of parole for juveniles.

In 2012, the US Supreme Court also found that life without parole sentences should be rare for people under the age of 18. In 2021, a more conservative high court made it easy In order to impose those penalties for juveniles, the ruling does not require a finding that a minor is incapable of rehabilitation.

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