What’s to Come for Juvenile Murderers Seeking Parole?

A Boston College law professor tells us what happens now that the state’s first parole hearings have started.

Swampyank at English Wikipedia

Swampyank at English Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons

Seven months after the highest court in Massachusetts ruled that it was cruel and unusual to keep murderers convicted as juveniles behind bars for the rest of their lives without the chance of release, the first batch of parole hearings have started to take place, drudging up a range of emotions for the family members of victims and calling into question what’s next if they actually leave prison.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for defendants to spend life in jail without parole for crimes they committed when they were under 18, including felony murder charges. Not long after, the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued a similar finding, falling in line with the national standards. Of the 65 cases that qualify under that ruling in Massachusetts, two inmates recently had the opportunity to plead their case for their potential release in front of the state’s six-member parole board.

Last week, Joe Donovan and Frederick Christian, who were both 17 when they were sent to jail for life, sat before officials and outlined reasons they should be allowed to walk free. While many cases up for debate have drawn protests from family members of the victims, Donovan’s case has stood out from the rest. Donovan, convicted in 1992 of first-degree murder after he punched an MIT student in the head who was then stabbed to death by a codefendant, has received support from his victim’s relatives, and even garnered the backing of elected officials in Cambridge.

Donovan told the parole board last week that he was a “stupid kid” when he committed his crime, and that he has taken steps to better his life while serving out his sentence. Now 38, Donovan will wait patiently as state officials mull over the facts and circumstances of his case and ultimately decide if he should be allowed to reenter society based on the guidelines laid out by the courts.

To find out what the next steps are in situations like Donovan’s, and as more parole hearings are scheduled to go before the board, we talked with Boston College law professor R. Michael Cassidy. Here’s what he had to say:

What’s the timeframe for a decision from the board after one of these hearings?

It can be weeks, it can be months; there’s no one-set time period. It all depends on workload, and how long it will take them to write an order, and how many other cases they have pending. My guess is, it would probably be a month or two, but I don’t know if the parole board has regulations that have time standards in them, but I know that it varies by complexity of the matter.

With so many cases lined up because of the Supreme Judicial Court ruling, how does the parole board pick which case to take on first?

The parole board can schedule its own hearings, so they can schedule the cases in whatever order they want and take into account for example how long a person has been incarcerated. Donovan was sentenced when he was 17, and he is now middle-aged, so he has been incarcerated for a long time. They will also take into consideration the level of seriousness of the offense. Now you might think all murders are murders, but in [Donovan’s case], he wasn’t actually the stabber, it was a joint venture and he was tried under a felony murder theory. Maybe one of the things they are doing is taking the most compelling cases the most quickly.

Donovan’s case is different because the victim’s family is supporting his release, as is Cambridge’s Board of Alderman. Do you think it’s a coincidence he went first?

They took a rather compelling case first. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, no…I also think it would be natural for them to consider the oldest cases first.

Is Donovan’s case for release extremely rare?

I don’t think it’s extremely rare. But I think it’s rare. It’s refreshingly rare for family members to recognize that life in jail is not necessary for someone to pay back their debt to society for a youthful offense, especially when they weren’t the stabber. I thought it was heartwarming that [the victim’s] family supported the parole. I think they did it because he wasn’t the stabber, and it wasn’t an intentional killing—it was an armed robbery that went wrong. I think that they recognized that for youthful offenders, the combination of those factors really—justice doesn’t scream out for life in prison without parole.

Do you think, personally, that some of these offenders should be released?

I think it depends on the offender. I think that what the SJC has said is you have to take an individualized approach. It’s cruel and unusual punishment to not take an individualized approach to youthful offenders.

Do you think it’s cruel to have a blanket approach to these juvenile convictions?

I do. I don’t think that a cookie-cutter approach to every 17 year-old should be treated the same way, in the interest of justice.

Even when considering a compelling case, how do they set restrictions when someone is paroled after all of these years?

What will happen is, they can set conditions of the parole and they can say, ‘you will go down to another facility, and for the next three months you are going to a training program or to Alcoholics Anonymous, and if you follow these conditions you will get parole in three months.’ Or they can grant him parole automatically. They have very wide discretion. If granted parole, they have a parole officer and are subject to anything that the parole board sets as a condition of that parole—and, of course, if they violate that parole, they will be subject to a parole revocation hearing and sent back to serve the remainder of their term. It takes a while to craft an appropriate order, because the board is determining what conditions should be established.

And that varies case-to-case.

That varies by what particular problems or obstacles the person has to function in society without re-offending and without being a danger to others, and it’s a very individualistic approach.

With all of these cases lined up, do you think for a majority of them, there is a good chance for parole?

I think it will depend on, as I said before, if it’s a joint venture crime, and if he is found guilty because he was an accomplice to someone else’s murder, it will depend on what level of involvement he had. Because the accomplice liability is so broad, you can be an accomplice by rendering a very minor form of assistance, or you can be an accomplice by actually holding someone down while someone else kills somebody. … I think another consideration the parole board will undertake is whether they were found guilty for actually committing murder with malice aforethought. I think the felony murder cases where the person played a role in the felony, and someone else did the act that led to the death, are going to be very strong cases for parole.

Are there other factors?

It will also depend on the offender’s disciplinary record while they are in prison. That’s going to vary from offender to offender. [The parole board will look at] what they have done to better themselves when they were in prison. And have they been out of trouble? Have they been in fights, have they possessed weapons while in prison, have they ever attacked guards? Those are very individual determinations.

So if someone were closer to getting out than others, what services are available to help that transition?

The parole and probation departments contract with certain service agencies to provide services to people engaged in reentry, so they could be sent to a job training program, or a halfway house…so the state contracts with service providers to inmates who are on release and that will be part of the order the parole board will carefully craft for each individual. And then it will depend on the parole officer, and a lot of where they are [located]. Services available in Oxford, Massachusetts, might be different than services in South Boston. They are going to assign them a parole officer who is familiar with the services available in that area.

Is reform possible for these people who were committed at 17 for murder, and have spent all of this time in jail?

I think every human being is capable of redemption, and that’s why I am against mandatory sentencing. Incarceration in the United States is full of instances where people have served time, and have been released, and have been productive members of society, written books, gone on to successful careers in law and medicine, they have become artists—I think you have to take an individualized approach to it. Jail can also have some criminogenic effects, too. For some it can make them more violent, more impetuous, and it can break their social bonds. And I think what we are seeing in these cases is that it’s required that we take an individualistic approach. Not everyone is going to get paroled, but it’s not fair to say that no one is entitled to a parole hearing.