What’s Next for Philip Chism?

Chism, now 17, will serve at least 40 years for the rape and murder of Danvers teacher Colleen Ritzer, and experts will parse that sentence. But what do we really know about how he’ll serve that time?
Phillip Chism

Phillip Chism on trial at Essex Superior Court in Salem, Mass. / Photo via AP

This week, Massachusetts mourned anew over the rape and murder of Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer. On Friday, friends and family shared their sorrow in victim-impact statements at the sentencing hearing of Philip Chism in Salem Superior Court. As Judge David A. Lowy pronounced the 17-year-old’s punishment, he said he believed “the crashing waves of this tragedy will never wane.”

Chism, 14 at the time of the murder, was automatically tried as an adult per Massachusetts law. He was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility in 25 years—the maximum allowed a juvenile at the time of his crime—convicted of first-degree murder. The judge also imposed a sentence of 40 years plus one day for rape and 40 years plus one day for armed robbery. All the sentences are to be served concurrently, which means Chism will not actually be able to apply for parole until age 54. At that point, by statute, he will have to prove to a parole board that “there is a reasonable probability that, if [he] is released, he will live and remain at liberty without violating the law, and that his release is not incompatible with the welfare of society.”

Now, we know that Chism will go back to the secure Department of Youth Services (DYS) facility in Worcester, and most likely remain there until he is 18. We know he’ll receive 857 days credit for time served. But the rest of his path is not so clear. Certainly, he’ll be transferred to MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole for classification. The Department of Correction will then determine in what prison he will be housed—that, in part, will depend upon how he does in the juvenile jail and how dangerous he is deemed when he arrives at Walpole. But what will Philip Chism be doing day by day in a youth prison, and is there preparation for going to a prison designed for adults?

According to a DYS email, “DYS holds youth who are under 18 and have received adult sentences as a courtesy to the adult system, in order to comply with Federal law. Youth held on a courtesy basis are maintained in hardware secure programs, where they receive educational and medical services, clinical support and are afforded access to a variety of psychoeducational groups.”

In a phone interview, trial attorney Janice Bassil of Bassil, Klovee & Budreau, who litigates juvenile murder cases, described the juvenile-to-adult system path of her client Ernest Watkins, who, like Chism, was convicted of his crime (involuntary manslaughter) at age 14. He spent time at a youth prison for several years, and at age 18, he was shipped to Walpole. Bassil says, “DYS was really terrific and cared about my client. They go out of their way to take care of kids.” Many earn their GEDs.

Bassil had wanted her client to go to Walpole at age 21, and did have one complaint. She is litigating because those in DYS are not allowed to earn “good time” while serving their sentence—that privilege is only allowed prisoners in adult facilities. Good time can be earned for participation in certain activities and allows for some days off one’s sentence.

Bassil says that Chism might have a difficult time when he makes the transition. “A lot will turn on his mental health issues.” She added, “He could very well go back and forth between Bridgewater Mental Hospital and prison. More than 300,000 mentally ill people are held in jails and prisons on any given day. Typically clients with mental health issues don’t adapt well.”

In his sentencing statement, Judge Lowy had noted that while the insanity defense was not accepted in the jury’s verdict, Chism “did not start life on third base.” His home life included his father’s abuse, abandonment and unpredictability, as well as a divorce. Chism’s mother brought Philip to Danvers from Tennessee, and his adjustment was difficult.

After Chism was found guilty of the horrific crimes against Ritzer, he was held in DYS in Boston. There, he is alleged to have assaulted a state worker—the same place where Watkins once resided, Metro Youth, Bassil said. Those charges will be heard in juvenile court in the coming months. Chism was then sent to Worcester State Hospital where he was evaluated by a psychiatrist, because, as the Boston Globe reported in 2014, representatives from DYS had stated he seemed psychotic, “screaming incoherently [and] foaming at the mouth.” He was eventually diagnosed, treated, and medicated.

After that incident, according to an affidavit filed by Jonathan Blodgett, Essex County District Attorney, and the prosecutor, Kate MacDougall, the Commonwealth asked for “strict security precautions” at any state or county facility where Chism is housed.

Bassil said, “I don’t know if he’s been suicidal, but I expect when he goes back [to DYS], he will be watched closely.” Massachusetts does not have solitary confinement in its juvenile jails. “He will get counseling and most likely be expected to participate in groups,” said Bassil.

There are risks to those who are young when they arrive in adult prisons, including being attacked by other prisoners or by staff. They aren’t spared harsh punishments such as restraint chairs, chemical agents, and electro-shock weapons, wrote Jennifer L. Woolard and her co-authors in a 2005 article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Most young people fervently hope to avoid becoming what prison seems to demand, and if they do give in, committing crimes behind bars becomes acceptable.

As elucidated in the recent 2012 groundbreaking case, Miller v. Alabama, and revisited recently in Montgomery v. Louisiana, is an idea—proven by neuroscience and behavioral research—that “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.” Whether Philip Chism does change remains to be seen.

One thing is for sure: Chism will have a long road before he can even see parole. And because of his brutal crimes, there are many who will fight to keep him behind bars, no matter how much he may transform. But only time will tell what will happen with Philip Chism.