Permanent Offense

One state rep would like to see the U.S. Supreme Court go further in prohibiting life sentences for juveniles.

Thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week, offenders under age 18 can no longer be sentenced to life without parole, except if they've been found guilty of murder. In the eyes of Mary Helen Roberts, a Democratic state representative from Edmonds, that's good news, but it doesn't go far enough. She'd like to eliminate life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder as well. During the last legislative session, she sponsored a bill that would have done just that, but it never made it out of committee. Had it passed, inmates like Barry Massey—who in 1988 became the youngest person in the United States to receive life without the possibility of parole—could have had their sentences re-evaluated. Massey is one of 28 individuals in Washington serving life-without-parole terms after being sentenced as juveniles, according to a report last year by Columbia Legal Services in Seattle. At 13, Massey robbed a store with a friend, and in the process the owner was stabbed, shot, and killed. Massey denies involvement, but was convicted in the killing. As Nina Shapiro detailed in a Seattle Weekly cover story ["Killing Mercy," July 4, 2007], Massey has since become a model prisoner. But thanks to the sentence handed down while he was still a child, he is ineligible for parole, and Gov. Gregoire has denied his petition for clemency. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court disallowed the death sentence for anyone under age 18, in part on the basis that adolescent brains are still developing. "[I]t would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy. Rep. Roberts uses the same logic in arguing that children also should not be given the highest possible sentence short of death.

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