GUIDELINES FOR LIFE SENTENCE DECISIONS

     The Legislature has determined that parole is legal and permissible for those sentenced to serve a life sentence with the possibility of parole.  According to law, the possibility of parole begins at 15 years.  Some inmates will merit parole at 15 years; some inmates will never merit parole and will serve several decades in prison.  Presumably, most cases will fall somewhere between the two extremes.  The inmate has much at stake.  The victim’s family (and in non-murder cases, the victim) has much at stake.  The public, whose protection is paramount, has much at stake.  Given the importance and the difficulty of making decisions in life sentence cases, the Parole Board formulated these guidelines for use by Parole Board members.

     This document is intended to guide the analysis that a Board member conducts in every life sentence decision.  This analysis, when applied by a conscientious Board member, will result in a decision that is based on facts rather than personal opinions.  Through the use of guidelines and analysis, the Parole Board seeks objectivity over subjectivity.  By using the same analysis in every case, the Parole Board seeks consistency and fairness.  Guidelines protect against decisions that are arbitrary, capricious, or unpredictable.  Recognizing the great difference between serving 15 years in prison or serving decades until death, the Parole Board is committed to objectivity and fact-based decision-making as the best path to fairness in each decision and consistency across all decisions.  Diligent preparation and detailed knowledge of the facts are required of every Board member in every case.

     The Parole Board publishes these guidelines for the benefit of inmates who hope to obtain another chance, supporters of inmates, victim families and surviving victims, and for members of the public who are interested in the work of Parole.  Inmates should know what standards they need to meet and how cases will be evaluated.  Opponents of a parole that is granted should be able to see and understand the reasons for that decision.

     In making decisions, the Parole Board is directed by the laws of Massachusetts as determined by the Legislature and interpreted by the Supreme Judicial Court.  The following laws and court decisions direct and guide parole decision-making.  First, the Legislature has determined that an inmate can be paroled only if (a) it is reasonably probable that he will not re-offend, and (b) his release is compatible with the welfare of society.  Second, the Legislature determined specifically that parole cannot be granted “merely as a reward for good conduct” in prison.  Third, the Legislature requires that the Parole Board receive for each hearing a complete statement of the crime and the circumstances of the crime.  Fourth, the Legislature has not created any presumption for or against parole at 15 years; it is a matter left to the Parole Board’s discretion.  Fifth, the Supreme Judicial Court determined the four goals of sentencing as (a) punishment of the offender, (b) deterrence, (c) incapacitation to protect the public from further harm, and (d) rehabilitation of the offender.  See Commonwealth v. Goodwin, 414 Mass. 88 (1993).  Every Parole Board decision must support each of those four goals; no decision should undermine a goal of sentencing.  Sixth, the Supreme Judicial Court considered and rejected the argument that the Massachusetts Parole Board cannot consider the specific facts of the crime in making its parole decision.  In Greenman v. Massachusetts Parole Board, 405 Mass. 384 (1989), the SJC determined that the Board can and should consider the specific facts of the crime and the length of incarceration in assessing punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, and public safety.

     The Parole Board does not impose sentence or “re-sentence.”  The Board does not have the legal authority or means to do so.  The Parole Board must, however, interpret the legislative requirement to consider the welfare of society.  The United States Supreme Court stated that determining the welfare of a community “requires the [Parole] Board to assess whether, in light of the nature of the crime, the inmate’s release will minimize the gravity of the offense, weaken the deterrent impact on others, and undermine respect for the administration of justice” (emphasis added).  Greenholtz v. Inmates of Nebraska, 442 U.S. 1, 8 (1979).  The Supreme Court recognizes, therefore, the necessity of assessing the length of incarceration to assure that it is equal to the gravity of the offense and accomplishes the deterrence of others.  In the Greenman decision in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court adopted that language in authorizing the Massachusetts Parole Board to consider the facts and circumstances of the crime in determining whether an inmate is likely to re-offend and whether parole is compatible with the welfare of society.

     Considering the facts of the crime is not designed to increase punishment.  Instead, it is designed to assess the length of incarceration fairly and consistently.  An inmate whose conduct is less culpable and less heinous should stand in a different position than the inmate whose criminal conduct is more culpable and more heinous.  In addition, an inmate who committed the offense as a juvenile will be evaluated with recognition of the distinctive attributes of youth, including immaturity, impetuosity, and a failure to appreciate risks and consequences.  See Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, 466 Mass. 655 (2013).  As recognized by both the United States Supreme Court and the Supreme Judicial Court, the length of incarceration is related to all the goals of sentencing:  rehabilitation, deterrence, punishment, and public protection.  Assessing rehabilitation, deterrence, punishment, and public protection are serious responsibilities.  The Legislature has placed these responsibilities with the Parole Board, and the Legislature and the Supreme Judicial Court have authorized the Parole Board to consider the facts of the crime and the length of incarceration.

     These guidelines will be used in life sentence cases to assist Board members in determining if it is reasonably probable that the inmate will not re-offend and his release is compatible with the welfare of society.


 

GUIDELINES FOR LIFE SENTENCE DECISIONS

 

I.  Has the inmate's period of incarceration been of sufficient length to adequately protect the public, punish him for his conduct, deter others, and allow for rehabilitation?

  •  Facts of the crime with focus on both the inmate's criminal conduct and the harm that he caused

(what are the specific actions involved in planning and committing the crime?  are there aggravating or mitigating facts related to the crime?  do the facts or circumstances of the victim’s life or conduct aggravate the offense?  for example, did the inmate murder a child, an elderly person, or a person whose conduct during the events is blameless or altruistic?  was the inmate a juvenile when he committed the offense?  if so, consider factors of immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.)

  • Inmate's other convictions
  • Inmate's other criminal conduct
  • Comparison of this inmate's length of incarceration with that of other similarly situated inmates

(this step is critical to achieving fairness and consistency: an inmate whose criminal conduct is less culpable, less harmful, or less extensive should be assessed differently from an inmate whose conduct is more culpable, more harmful, or more extensive)

 

II. Is the inmate rehabilitated?

  • Degree of remorse and understanding of harm caused by this crime and other crimes
  • Inmate's recognition and understanding of issues that caused him to act criminally
  • Institutional conduct
  • Was the inmate incarcerated as a juvenile?

(if so, consider factors of immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.)
(does inmate control his behavior and comply with rules?)

  • Institutional programs

      (do programs address specific factors that caused criminal behavior? why did inmate take the program and what       did he learn?  how does that learning affect likelihood to re-offend?)

  • Inmate's demonstration of rehabilitated character and reformed behavior
  • Inmate's reaction and response to any previous denial of parole

      (has inmate made progress in those areas previous parole decision identified as deficient?)

 

III. Are there reasons to conclude that the inmate will live outside prison as a sober, law-abiding, employed, productive person who is making positive contributions to his family and his community?

  • Length of time inmate has been rehabilitated
  • Degree of support from and connection with family and friends
  • Likelihood of employment as assessed by employment history and employable skills

       (this will not apply in the same way to an elderly or disabled inmate)

  • Specific plans for immediate and long-term housing
  • Inmate's plan for re-entry with recognition of factors which contributed to previous criminal behavior
  • Receptiveness and commitment to observing general and specific conditions of parole

 

Updated 03-03-2014