Life without parole

Should all people convicted of first degree murder be sentenced to life without parole? I think not and I have filed legislation to give judges more flexibility in sentencing murderers. 

Not all murders are the same.  Some heinous murders reveal a sociopathic disregard for human life and even a joy in torturing others.

Those who commit the most heinous murders should be sentenced to life with no possibility of parole because of the gravity of the offense and out of respect for the families of the victims.   The bereaved families will never recover from the loss of their loved one and never be able to dispel from their minds the traumatic images of the final moments of their loved one’s life.

The families of the victims should know that justice was done to the fullest extent and they should not have to fearfully anticipate the eventual release of the convict.

At the other end of the spectrum are young people who engaged in a joint venture to commit a felony like a robbery and never sought to kill anyone, but who were convicted of first degree murder because someone else in the group killed someone in the course of the crime. 

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum lie many gang-involved young men who are not stone cold sociopaths, but who are caught up in a subculture of retribution and violence and do intentionally kill other young men with whom they have conflicts.  Many of them can, with some support, grow out of their gang thought patterns and contribute socially.

Under today’s law, once a jury finds someone guilty of first degree murder a judge has no choice but to sentence them to life without parole.  This single charge accounts for roughly 13% percent of the sentenced state prison population.

My legislative proposal would continue to allow judges to sentence those convicted of first degree murder to life without parole.  It would give them the additional option of sentencing prisoners to a life term with eligibility for parole after 35 or more years.  Those who have committed less heinous murders and have served thirty-five years should have the opportunity to persuade the parole board that they are ready to rejoin society.

My legislative proposal, unlike some other proposals, applies only to future sentencing decisions. It would not retroactively grant parole eligibility to those already serving sentences without parole.  Passing blanket legislation to make all of those currently serving life without parole eligible to see the parole board would, in many cases, unnecessarily open old wounds for the families of victims.

In many less-heinous murder cases, defendants are allowed to plead to second degree murder and avoid life without parole.   Retroactive application would effectively overturn the considered decisions of prosecutors not to offer lesser charges in over 1000 first-degree murder cases that were settled years ago when all decision-makers had relatively complete evidence about the crime, the defendant, the victim and the victim’s family.

While we have made significant progress on criminal justice reform, Massachusetts incarceration rates are still high by international standards.  Much of the gap is due to our heavier sentencing for violent crimes, including murder.  Recognizing that not all murders are the same would be an important step forward in our sentencing policy.

I’d welcome your comments below.

Survey Results

After initially publishing this post, I sent a survey to registered voters on my email news list. In addition, I posted the survey to several community lists and on facebook. I sent it without any background explanation, offering a link to this post only after people completed the survey. My goal was to get some insight into initial reactions among people who follow me, not to define my position, which was already defined and published.

The survey went out on Friday evening, August 16 and closed on Tuesday morning, August 20. 533 people responded to the survey of which 428 came from my newslist, 51 from community lists and 52 from facebook. My mailing included no tracking beacons and I did not collect IP addresses, so responses were entirely anonymous. However, I did use different URLs for the three sources, allowing the responses to be classified by source. I also asked a source question and the responses were very consistent with the URL.

The single main question appears below with responses added. The responses did not vary significantly by source URL :

If someone is convicted of first degree murder, they should . . .

  • . . . be executed themselves (8%)
  • . . . serve life in prison with no possibility of parole (11%)
  • . . . depending on the specifics of their crime be sentenced to life without parole or to life with parole after many years (57%)
  • . . . be sentenced to serve a number of years, but should always have the chance to be paroled. (25%)

Those who selected one of the latter two options that are more lenient than current policy were asked an additional question:

If the rules are changed to allow some or all convicted murderers to have a chance of parole . . .

  • . . . the new rules should only apply to new cases (12%)
  • . . . all people now serving life without parole should have their cases reviewed for the possibility of parole. (86%)
  • Other/not sure (2%)

Comments on Survey Results

First, I alarmed a few people by including a death penalty option. I am adamantly opposed to the death penalty and there is no movement to restore the death penalty in Massachusetts. I included it only to give people who believe in it the option to say so. I was relieved that only 8% (in my response universe) had that view.

Second, I was pleased that the majority of respondents favored the general policy position that I had adopted — that judges should have the option in first degree murder cases to sentence to life without parole or to life with parole eligibility after some term of years.

Third, I was surprised to see how many favored retroactive application of the new rules — 86% among those advocating for new rules. While I understand and share the motivation for retroactive application — to do justice to those unjustly incarcerated — I feel that retroactive application does an injustice to victims and witnesses. Let me elaborate.

In the piece above I only partially explained my discomfort with retroactivity. I touched on the fact that prosecutors frequently offer second degree murder charges (which carries a life sentence but with parole eligibility) in plea bargains in less serious cases. While plea bargaining has a bad reputation and is subject to bias, it so universal that it does operate as a crude filter — actual first degree murder convictions tend to involve more heinous murders. So, the expectation would be that retroactive review of first degree murder cases would only rarely lead to release. This does not diminish the possibility that some injustices would be corrected.

An additional reason to be concerned about retroactively making parole hearings available to those currently serving life without parole is that it is violates what is effectively a promise to witnesses in the cases. When witnesses come forward to testify against a murderer, it takes real courage. If the defendant ends up back on the street, the witness may have good reason to be in fear. They sometimes took the stand on the premise that their testimony would put the defendant away for life. Changing the rules is unfair to them.

Finally, and most deeply, changing the rules is very hard on the families of victims. Knowledge that the murderer has been sentenced for their natural life does help families put the tragedy behind them. Introducing a prospect of release forces them to go backward into the tragedy, especially if they have to testify at a parole hearing. I do believe that some people who have committed murder are capable of remorse, growth and healing. Restorative conversations between murderers and families can sometimes help everyone. But in some cases that is just too much to ask.

It is important to recognize that any retroactive application would have to create a process by which all cases would be reviewed somehow — by a court, the parole board, or some special panel — to determine whether they fit criteria for consideration. Even if most sentences are ultimately unchanged, some assessment will need to occur for all and that will introduce the uncertainty that is harmful to families.

Considering issues like retroactive application involves weighing different stories: The youth who did something awful but is a good person 30 years later . . . the brother who testified against the man who brutally murdered his sister . . . the bystander who came forward to identify the gang killer.

Look out across a room of life sentenced prisoners, as I have on prison visits, and you are looking out at a great diversity of complex stories. It is next to impossible to gain intellectually honest confidence how policy changes will really play out across all those stories — on balance for justice or on balance for injustice.

Definition of First Degree Murder

In Massachusetts Law, there are three different kinds of first degree murder:

  • murder with deliberate premeditation
  • murder with extreme atrocity or cruelty
  • murder in the commission or attempted commission of a felony punishable by a maximum sentence of life

A conviction under any of these theories of first degree murder results in life without parole. For an authoritative exposition of what constitutes murder in the first degree, please see the official Model Jury Instructions on Homicide.


Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

76 replies on “Life without parole”

  1. I appreciate your stance but disagree with several points. First of all and most importantly, we must recognize that many times bias affects juries and judges, and thus I feel it is imperative that all convicted of murder should be allowed the opportunity to be considered for parole. If they are truly sociopathic, they will likely not qualify for parole. Secondly and related to the first point, what about the families of the people who were convicted of murder? Don’t their feelings matter? If we recognize that bias exists in all humans and thus can affect convictions, it is only just to retroactively allow those previously convicted the opportunity for parole. Lastly, I feel all people serving time should be allowed the opportunity to have their cases reviewed and given the chance to be released if terminally ill. Again, there is no guarantee that they will be, but it is our moral obligation and humane to at least review their case.

    1. Thank you, Kristin.

      Regarding the terminally ill, we did pass medical parole as part of our criminal justice reforms last year. So that, at least is in place: Not sure it is working right yet.

      As to others serving life sentences, I don’t think we should retroactively allow all of them to see the parole board. I’m not even sure that we can — that would mean overturning the sentences imposed by judges (as well as the charging decisions of prosecutors as noted above). I think that might raise “separation of powers” issues. Conceivably, there is an intermediate solution that would involve making resentencing by the courts possible, but I’m really concerned about the families of victims who we would be putting through a whole new procedural trauma — agreed, there are two families involved in every murder, but the families of the victims are in a different position than the families of the murderer.

    2. I agree with what you on this. Please, NEVER endorse the death penalty here. Too many innocent people (overwhelmingly black or brown) are on death row in states that allow the death penalty. Bad enough Trump changed federal law.

    3. Hi Kristin,

      I think that you would have a better comprehension of the parole system if in fact Mr. Brownsberger were honest in his initial poll regarding murder convictions. First and foremost being convicted of murder carries a life sentence without the possibility of parole as a mandatory sentence. BUT what he doesn’t tell you is that the law has a back door parole system in which the offender can petition the parole board to seek their recommendation for commutation. Then a hearing is held before the parole board where the community and victims have a right to testify against their release. Getting a commutation is very hard and governor Baker does not typically approve them. Further the time that must be served (not since the date of the crime but the date of conviction) must be 15 years and there must be a documented reason for it beyond simply that they believe that they can behave in a normal environment.

      This “study” based on his “new” legislation is already within the scope of the law and has been enacted only twice under the compassionate release laws. I can’t see where his newly filed legislation is going to do anything that hasn’t already been done. The poll seems to be a political ploy to get a rise out of the commonwealth during a critical time.

      1. I pray that it passes. My so in law was convicted to life without parole. His case was the most election time case possible. The way it was handled from his counsel calling no witnesses to the court not allowing anyone in the courtroom, including media, to the prosecution wasting tax payers money paying for witnesses to be there in a taxi, $200.00+ and 4 days pay , and not even using them.
        Then recieving a sentence so severe.
        I wish you were in Colorado.

    4. You said:
      “Secondly and related to the first point, what about the families of the people who were convicted of murder? Don’t their feelings matter?”

      Deat Kristen:
      We all notice that you did not mention the families of the VICTIMS. Glad you showed your true colors. Many thanks.
      Please don’t ever serve on a murder trial jury.

      1. Dee, I care deeply about the families of the victims. Will already mentioned them and Inwas responding to his post.

      1. Yes, Will, but you WANT people in prison to vote.

        You probably won’t admit that though. Not now, anyway.

  2. Judicial discretion, mitigating circumstances, and separation of powers make even Will’s proposed reforms too mandatory. Let the judiciary do it’s job, rather than the legislature turning this responsibility over to the executive branch (prosecutors) who will over-charge in an effort to get the defendant to plea.

      1. No legislative mandatory minimums – maybe guidelines. Let the punishment fit the actual crime, not the category of the crime.

        Your “justice for the victims” feels awfully like “revenge” to me. The heinous crime has been committed. It can’t be undone. Maybe it’s time to move on and treat the perpetrator with compassion; and maybe not. That’s one of the reasons for judicial discretion.

        These crimes are not well thought out decisions. They are not deterred by the prospect of a life sentence.

        [ … and as always, your thoughtful arguments to the contrary give me pause. For instance, I had never considered the effect retroactivity would have on witnesses.]

  3. I think this is more advanced sentencing, and I support it. Of course luckily I’ve not had any family or friend be a victim, so I can only speak as a regular citizen. I do agree that there are shades. My largest concern however is that it requires a professional and unbiased judiciary. We seem to be lucky here in MA, but if news reports are any indication, this is not universally true. “All or none” does remove that human element. Of course it also removes the human element – e.g. if an abuse victim knowingly and with premeditation killed their abuser, they should not suffer the same flat sentencing. I think you would have to have the parole be only eligible after a sufficiently long time, for the sake of the victim’s family – it’s still murder after all, and there should be no perception that they “got away with it.” I’m thinking of organized crime there, e.g. Regardless, I think this is worthy of your efforts, although it may be an uphill battle.

    1. Thank you, Peter.

      “Sufficiently long” is a difficult judgment, somewhat arbitrary and based on community sensibilities as reflected by politics. I picked 35 years for adults convicted of first degree murder in this bill recalling that there was a 19-20 vote in the Senate that failed to raise the mandatory minimum for juveniles from 20 to 35. For adults, the votes would likely to be there to raise it to 35 even if I started with a lower number.

      1. There is no evidence of a public safety benefit by keeping most people in prison for 35 years. There is ample research that offenders age out of crime, that lengthy prison sentences make someone more likely to offend, and the costs are overwhelming, again with no demonstration of increased safety. Let’s reconsider the term for all serving such long sentences and base parole on institutional behavior and efforts to change behavior not 35 years. Most other rich, industrialized nations have shorter terms and greater safety. I also think we have in place or could strengthen services for victims and witnesses that would minimize revictimization or trauma if there were retrospective revisions. Even with these suggestions I applaud and support this conversation. Thank you!

    2. Thank you, Peter, for mentioning victims of abuse who kill their abusers. I’m wondering how these proposals would affect abuse survivors (most of them women) who receive criminal sentences for defending themselves and their children from their largest statistical threat (their intimate partners and exes). Will – do you have statistics on how many women in MA have been given life sentences for killing abusive spouses(or boyfriends)? I wonder if there are any efforts to enhance the clemency application processes implemented in the 1990s? Thanks so much for your efforts to limit lifetime incarceration.

  4. First, let’s worry about people who have gone through, and are still going through, the system due to nonviolent offenses including for cannabis use. People are still being arrested and legal use is still being impeded by law enforcement officials who have glaring conflicts of interest that should be disqualifying for their positions. The inequitable application of criminal justice was one of the key reasons why the electorate chose to legalize cannabis in the first place. Yet state officials continue to stand in the way. Get the nonviolent offenders out of the system first, then we’ll worry about people who left a couple of bullet holes in their neighbor’s little girl.

    1. Steve, I’m with you that we need to accelerate the rollout of legal cannabis, but even 25 years ago marijuana crimes were a small share of our incarcerated population at the state level. I reviewed 1000 consecutive commitments to state prison for drug crimes in the mid-90s and only 3 of them were for marijuana — most for cocaine and heroin.

      If we want to further reduce mass incarceration, we have to consider how we handle violent crimes.

  5. First and foremost, murder sentences should protect society from any more harm the murderer might cause.

    The second goal should be rehabilitative – to the extent possible – to make it so the criminal stops being a criminal – but, let’s face it, neither our prison system nor, frankly, our psychiatrists are any good at this. There are some, but very few, who can find true redemption in prison and rejoin society as contributing members. If anything, criminals coming out of prison are often more dangerous than before.

    I understand that “punishment” tends to be a goal too but I find that counterproductive and somewhat medieval. For all we know, sociopaths don’t choose to be sociopaths.

    With that in mind – sure – assuming the parole boards are any good at identifying those few “redeemed” cases – the proposal makes sense.

    Much more effort should go into learning what makes a murderer and preventing that thing from happening to begin with – psychology, sociology, means of early intervention and so on.

  6. Let’s create a prison system that is worth the $80,000 per prisoner per year and take it out of the hands of capitalists and put it in the government ownership. Educate prisoners, counsel prisoners, and prepare them to re-enter the world and the work force.
    Murder needs to be reviewed. Trump was ready to give the death penalty to 5 young black males who were completely innocent and spent their lives in prison until the true murderer confessed. We now have data to solve crimes that we didn’t have in the past – it’s an evolving process – but certainly no death penalty since that costs more than living out your years in prison. And prisoners should be responsible for keeping up the prisons – laundry, cleaning, food preparation, repairs – this is how skills are learned to survive once they get out.

    1. Thanks, Anne.

      I strongly agree with your sentiment that prisons should be better. Just to make sure it is said: There are no private prisons “in the hands of capitalists” in the Massachusetts system. All of our prisons are run by the state or by county sheriffs.

      1. Oh Goody! I’m getting influenced by the national media on what other states like Texas are doing, What is the cost per prisoner on average in Massachusetts Will?

          1. Will- It hasn’t been $50K for years. Projected for fiscal year 2019 is $73K. Partially due to the decrease in persons incarcerated, with an increase in the allocation to the DOC.

    2. Anne —

      Many years ago I worked for the Mass. Dept. of Correction as a teacher
      in Norfolk prison. One of the many lessons I learned is that the prison was run, top to bottom, by the Correctional Officers Union. This was not a good thing. The Union got in our way all the time, on the pettiest issues. For instance, we had a two story schoolhouse and would like to have been able to use both stories, but we couldn’t, because the officer(s) who took attendance didn’t like climbing the stairs. And the union backed him up. I walked away from that year convinced that privatizing the prisons — which would have the indirect effect of weakening the Officers Union — was the only route to reform. I don’t doubt that you can find problems with the private systems but there are always worse cases.

  7. Will, your proposal strikes me as reasonable. It’s never easy to strike a perfect balance on these things, but circumstances matter (and are overlooked by mandatory sentencing rules). Very young offenders present different considerations than older ones. The application of the felony murder rule, as you note, can also create unduly harsh consequences.

  8. I was recently on a jury that convicted a young man of first degree murder in a gang-related crime. It was heartbreaking for me to think that this twenty-three year old wouldn’t have a chance to be considered for parole for the rest of his life. It’s unfortunate that the gangs in the inner-city are destroying so many young lives.

    After recently having read the memoir of Nathan McCall, “Makes me Wanna Holler”, I was struck by the changes that Nathan was able to make when in prison from being a hardened criminal living a life of violent crime to becoming an engaged citizen who was hired as a journalist at the Washington Post and now teaches at Emory University in Atlanta. While in prison he got the right mentors who set him on the right track.

    I’m not naive to believe that all individuals are capable of this rehabilitation. We also have our responsibility of protecting the rest of society. But I’d like to see that for some first degree murder cases that an individual would have the opportunity to be considered for parole.

  9. There are too many killings, mass shootings, and individual acts of hate. And not all killings are committed antiseptically, ie., with firearms; the majority of murders are performed up close and personal, with intent to destroy, with knife, hammer, garote, etc., you get the idea. While the death penalty will not stop murderous killings, it will certainly stop the convicted murderer from killing again. The life saved might very well be yours, or a family member.

    1. I agree with Will Clifford. I do not like the death
      Penalty , but, the courts have a responsibility to protect
      the public and victims families.

      and grieving families

      1. It would be worth knowing how many released murderers in the last decade went on to murder again. Will?

          1. If this is a reference to Dukakis and Willi Horton, Horton raped and beat up, but didn’t murder, during his weekend release. Lots of folks seem to be misled by the Republican Lee Atwater’s attack ads. And more recently Cinelli, who murdered a police officer while on parole, was not on parole from a murder conviction.

        1. Anne, I can tell you that plenty of released illegal immigrants go on to rape and murder.
          I don’t know the number.

          1. Dee, you don’t know the number because this comment is not supported by facts but rather by your fears and hatred toward immigrants. Good luck when you are I’ll and a healthcare team of immigrants treats you. Let’s hope for their sake you’re unconscious or have unlearned your hate.

    2. Fortunately, people in Belmont don’t have to worry too much about murders and that sort of messy crime.

      That’s mainly for less fortunate people to deal with in Boston, Revere, Lynn, New York, Chicago, L.A., Baltimore, Newark, and other cities ruled by Democrats.

      And thank goodness we don’t have many illegal aliens here either. But maybe we should invite a few hundred illegals in, and their children.
      Then we’d need a second high school. Is that Ok with everyone?

      1. I think we should look at San Quentin for real rehabilitation and successful reintegration. In fact, what they offer for emotional growth and educational/career training should be models for our schools too. Better chances for public safety and genuine contributions to society for those released.

      2. I think the FBI needs to be alerted about Dee. She sounds exactly like the 26 white supremacist mass shooters recently apprehended by law enforcement before they could commit a terrorist act. This element does not belong in Belmont.

      3. I think the FBI needs to be alerted about Dee. She sounds exactly like the 26 white supremacist mass shooters recently apprehended by law enforcement before they could commit a terrorist act. This element does not belong in Belmont.

        1. Dee,
          There are really wonderful treatment centers in Massachusetts for paranoia and dementia. You should try to get help before Obamacare is dismantled because otherwise you’ll be seen as a pre-existing condition and denied healthcare just based on your comments here. Belmont is now a “Welcoming Town” to immigrants and our crime has been reduced since the Town Meeting landslide vote of approval for this.
          Again, there is help for you. And if you look into it you’ll see that every mass murder in the US in 2018 was committed by a white American citizen.

  10. It is an unproven assertion that the families of victims will “never” recover, including “never dispel” traumatic images, and, of course, who is to define “recover”? I have personally met some who have recovered from such.
    If the law is to distinguish punishments, perhaps you might add clarification or definition to “heinous”. Otherwise there will be unacceptable disparity among judges’ interpretations.

    1. Fair points. Different victims families respond differently and the facts of the case will vary widely. Certainly, some victims’ families support mercy.

      “Heinous” is not a legal term. I use it in the common sense way. It will not be part of any statute. Although, if you look at jury instructions, you will see words that are not too much more precise like “extreme atrocity or cruelty”.

  11. I appreciate your philosophy that people can grow and change. As a society we are locked into an attitude that there are evil people who engage in destructive behavior and that we must take revenge on them for the rest of their lives. This is how our law enforcement, courts and correctional systems are designed. We also expect survivors of violent crime to remain dangerous for life as well.

    I also appreciate your notion that every case is different and complex. People who hurt other people have been hurt themselves, often in significant and complicated ways that are not obvious on the surface. A violent felon has no doubt been abused or neglected her or himself, and their subsequent punishment for their serious crime reinforces those earlier problems.

    We have to refocus on healing, rehabilitation and restitution. Most felons who serve time are coming back to society at some point. Aren’t we better served when that person is ready to peacefully integrate into society with a job and a place to live? Can we help to ensure that with authentic rehabilitation in prisons rather than maintaining environments that further harm and harden those incarcerated?

    And can we stop ignoring the pain of survivors of violent crime? We cannot continue to take advantage of them as witnesses without helping them overcome the distress of their loss.

    It is an illusion that our system works to protect us and deal effectively with crime. All of our lives would be improved with a smarter approach.

  12. Thank you for asking for feedback. I agree with the commenter who suggested we need more stats on the number of people retroactive changes would be affected – that might change what I think. Thankfully, there are not a lot of murders in general, so we could actually carefully consider particular cases.

    I appreciate your thoughtful reasons against retroactivity. You mention plea bargaining as a “crude filter”. My experience working in corrections in the past is that it is also a “racist, sexist, and classist” filter.

    In drug-related crimes including murders (especially during the Drug War), vulnerable female consorts were often “ratted out” and ended up in jail for murders they were only involved with peripherally because they were in a relationship with the male involved. I feel if we do not review the people who are in jail for life right now for murder if your changes occur, we will be leaving a lot of these women there. I also feel we would be leaving other women and children there who might be abuse victims who ended up wrapped up in murder of their abuser or others in their abuser’s orbit.

    I realize that the victims in the murders for which these people are in jail would definitely hate this, but I also think that women who fit this profile are not the people these victims really wanted to see in jail. In fact, often, jailing these women to minimize the impact on the males involved can even anger the families of the murder victims and make them feel that justice was not done.

    Thanks again for asking our input.

    1. Thanks, Monica. Bias is definitely an issue.

      And you are right that there may be some women for whom your drug/crime narrative is the right one. However, according to the DOC population report as of 1/1/2018, there were only 26 women doing life in prison for first degree murder in Massachusetts as compared to 1,044 men. There were no new female life-without-parole commitments in 2017. Female life without parole is a relatively rare event. Of course, just one injustice is a something to fix.

  13. I endorse your proposed reforms, but would it be wrong to say that at least two of your reasons for rejecting retroactive application–promises of protection to witnesses and solace to victims’ families–would equally be arguments against your proposed reforms? If in adopting these reforms, we as a society are saying, “This is what we believe is proper justice,” then how are parole boards supposed to deny appeals that we have explicitly said are just? If we endorse these reforms, why not endorse them retroactively.

  14. I agree with your position, Will. As usual, it is well thought out and rational. Keep setting the standard for engaging constituents!

  15. Supposedly, at one time perhaps, Japanese courts required the guilty person to act out the crime as best as they could in the courtroom.

    I think that people who come up for parole should be forced to do the same.
    If they raped and murdered a mother and daughter, let them act it out before the parole board.

    Perhaps Will thinks this would be prejudicial. Yeh, just give the parole board a brief written synopsis of the crime so the criminal can get parole more easily. If the criminal says he’s sorry, let him go.

    This idea is very workable but won’t be implemented because certain people have more sympathy for the criminal than the victim.

    I won’t mention any names or political party.

  16. “All murderers are not the same”

    OK Will…you passionately support turning loose violent thugs and murderers on our families. We get that. Why then don’t you show some integrity and belief in your ideas? When you want to turn loose the next Willie Brown (or the repeat offender cop-killer in Woburn from your parole board scandal, or dozens more we could all name) to further their careers of rape and murder, YOU personally sign off that YOU will take responsibility to be criminally tried as an accessory with FULL responsibility for subject thugs later actions.

    Let me guess: not willing??

    You know well that there will be MANY gruesome recidivists among those you (and the ivory tower judges you and your colleagues appoint) release. Innocent people will be robbed, raped and murdered testing out your “international” Harvard academic lounge theories. Meanwhile, you will avert your eyes, and most certainly of all, ignore the victims, much as the Dukakis refused to even meet with the couple that was brutally and repeatedly beaten and raped by his belief in these same ideas in an earlier era. We learned from the 70’s and locked up the thugs. Now, sadly, we are repeating the same mistakes.

    And further, you seem to have plenty of time to look after the needs of convicted murders; how about the dead and crippled Marines resulting directly from your criminally lax oversight of the Registry? How many of those funerals did you attend?


    1. One thing I’ll always do is meet with people. Give me a call on my cell if you’d like to get together and have a face to face conversation about the issues — sometimes that is important; the electronic medium leaves out a lot. My cell is 617-771-8274.

  17. Thank you for the update on the survey results, Will, and your reflection on them. This is a hard one–made no easier by the brokenness of our criminal justice system. Given your thoughtful analysis of the alternatives, I trust your judgement, as it continues to evolve.

    I should add that I admire your willingness to absorb the vicious and irrational comments of a small but persistent fraction of visitors to this site. Although it’s clear (from the disconnectedness of their discourse) that the source of their hatred lies somewhere other than with you and your questions, it must be difficult to be the target of their anger. Another cost–all to common these days–of public service.

    Thank you the example of the patience with which you bear this cost, and for keeping the paths of communication open.

  18. As an earlier poster said it, I feel the merits of the case rest purely on the mechanics of the incident, the intent of the perpetrator and not on the impact to the family. Of course, the family deserve utmost respect and compassion; but the impact on the victim’s family most likely is not the motivating factor for the perpetrator. It certainly should be considered in the details of the judgement handed down for the safety of the victim’s family. But I feel it should not dictate the term of the sentencing. The impact on the family may turn out to be a factor in the rehabilitation of the perpetrator some years later, who knows?

  19. Senator Brownsberger,
    Thank you, first of all, for hosting this relevant and most valuable debate.
    In the matter of retroactivity, it seems to me that if mandatory life without parole sentences are morally repugnant, as I believe you would agree, they are such both before AND after after the passage of certain legislation. A realization today that LWOP is wantonly cruel and morally indefensible doesn’t mean that it was somehow acceptable yesterday. What is right is right, regardless of WHEN politicians and the pubic arrive at such a conclusion.
    Nathaniel Harrison

  20. Will, I am basically in agreement with you and praise you for your thoughtful work on this subject. I think I wrote that those in for life could be reviewed, but agree that for victims’ families and witnesses this could be terrible. Maybe not in all cases, though. There are stories in the news occasionally that show how innocent people were bullied into confessing, or how guilty people really changed (this does often have a very emotional impacts on victims’ families) How it could be worked out is a big problem for an already slow and burdened justice system. Carry on and do the right thing, Will. Also, thanks for not publishing all 400+ (mine included) results! – John M

  21. Will, your other end of the spectrum references “…young people who engaged in a joint venture to commit a felony like a robbery and never sought to kill anyone, but who were convicted of first degree murder because someone else in the group killed someone in the course of the crime.”

    However, the SJC decision COMMONWEALTH vs. TIMOTHY BROWN of 2017 effectively eliminates felony murder as anyone who participated but wasn’t the shooter has to be found to have the same premeditated intent as the shooter. The decision isn’t retroactive; the court deciding to allow that for another day.

    Regarding retroactive impacting prior judicial decisions, the much lauded (federal) “First Step Act” does change sentences. If this is accepted for the Fed prisoners, why not in Massachusetts?
    Further that first degree murder cases are different is what parole boards are empowered to do. Will mistakes be made? Undoubtedly, just as there is a continual drumbeat of incarcerated persons who are found factually innocent due to prosecutorial error/misconduct. I am not advocating eliminating prosecutors, but rather recognizing that none of us can predict the life story of anyone else decades into the future.

  22. I think we should remember that the person committing a first-degree murder has irretrievably and permanently terminated someone else’s life and has done so deliberately. Just consider the enormity of such a willful act! So I don’t see why we would want remove any disincentives for such acts or why one would want to muddle the simple clarity of a sentence of Life without parole and risk increasing the number of murders, even by a little bit.
    I wish Will that you would reconsider your position.

  23. There’s another option that no one has mentioned. I suggest that since, for at least some people, incarceration is tantamount to torture, prisoners should be given the option of committing suicide. There should be safeguards, such as a waiting period with expert counseling. But then some method of safe suicide (a botched suicide would cause injury and add to the torment) would be offered. It’s the only humane thing to do.

  24. I know many in society do not want to give second chances to prisoners who have committed a fatality. However, prisoners are stereotyped and every situation is different. In Biblical times, Moses committed a capital offense when he killed the Egyptian. King David committed a fatality when he impregnated one of his most loyal Soldier’s wife, and then had that Soldier killed to prevent him from learning of King David’s own sinful offense. Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul slew many Christians before being temporarily blinded by The Christ Jesus and then turning his life around. All three of these famous men named in the Bible as God’s Chosen, and I’m sure there were many more not mentioned, who committed fatal offenses, and God forgave them all, and used them in a big way, to serve His Will. There are first time offenders who committed a fatal offense. First time offenders, having no father, siblings or support in their lives. Yet, they are some who were never previously involved with the law, worked very hard to put themselves through four years or more years of college, previously had excellent reputation. Yet stumbled, subsequent to withheld, childhood traumas and lies and deception they were later also subjected to. Almost every country in the world, punishes offenders with sentences that do not exceed 25 years, even for capitol offenses, unless it involved terrorism, mass murders or similar barbaric acts. If God can forgive the remorseful and repented, who are we do decide the lifetime fate of our incarcerated brothers and sisters worldwide. Members of society including the media, need to stay neutral if they do not have all the facts and they need to allow for victims and/or family members to heal. Promoting ongoing hatred and encouraging more inhumane punishment to the many fallen offenders, is not the answer. But then, these are the final days. 2nd Timothy, Chapter 3, verses 1, “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, Without natural affection, having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”

  25. The man I have visited for over four years has been incarcerated since he was 19 and has spent over 30 years in prison. He has a sentence of natural life. He has participated in every program offered and gone on to lead others. He has worked particularly hard with a restorative justice group as well as obtaining a B.U dgree. He sees a large number of men (lifers) who have changed their view on life, taking advantage of any opportunity for self improvement and awareness, contributing as much as they can to society,He also, however sees another large group who have given up. It is maybe not surpising that so many have given up, given the punitive vindictive approach of the prison/criminal justice system. Your proposal would leave all these men with less reason to hope than they have now. This seems to me both to be cruel, inhumane and counter-productive. From visiting and meeting many people after their release after many years in prison, I am firmly of the belief that there are many men and women in prison who would make genuine contributions to society if they were released.

  26. Just read your article on this topic in the Belmont paper. In general I agree with your parsing of certain cases where parole after 35 years of prison could be appropriate. We do want to be careful of cases like one recently of Albert Flick who killed after being let on parole after 25 years in prison for murder. He had a pattern of attacking women even after being released on an earlier parole, and frankly, the hatred and need to control and destroy women by some men is a kind of terrorism in my opinion. These patterns need to be taken very seriously, and leave behind any residual notion of excusing ‘crimes of passion’. Thanks.

  27. How the sentencing of the guilty helps relieving a victim’s grief seems to be personal. Is the quest for a formalized vengeance not in part due to a deficit in how we help victims? I often feel uncomfortable as how their grief are pried upon and exposed.
    Clearly personal healthcare coverage might help, but is a true and intelligent long-term counselling really accessible to everyone in Mass?

  28. I feel that it would be only fair and just to allow that Life without Parole to be retroactive. Afterall, most of these lifers have reformed and transformed their lives through the programs and working on their education earning degrees. A lot of these lifers have done 25, 30, 40 years or more. Meanwhile there has been no offered hope for them, inspite of all their work.
    When an inmate has served decades and decades of time , their family members pass on , as well as the victims’ s family. Most lifers I know, their victims families are no longer around because of relocation and death. What justification is that?
    Not to mention a lot of lifers with the sentence of Life Without Parole are first time offenders and the crime was committed between ages of 18-25. Everyone who has been striving to help, work and educate themselves deserve a second chance.
    Preventing no retroactivity for these long time lifers is also very costly for our state because as they age , more medications are needed, as well as the need for more healthcare .
    It is only fair and just to give lifers the hope and possibility to prove to the community they can really be a help to others.

  29. Many lifers deserve a chance at parole due the circumstances of their case or their growth into maturity in prison. In Massachusetts we have the highest percentage of elderly prisoners in the country. At nearly $75,000 for each prisoner and double that for elderly prisoners in costs, we will spend a fortune on their care in the next 20 years. Also, in a state like ours we have over 1000 LWOP inmates. Compare that to the state of Minnesota ( almost same number of total inmates as we have) where they have 123 LWOP prisoners. Why does Massachusetts have so many? One reason may be that District Attorney’s go for a murder one conviction more often,we also have felony murder, and we have a Three Strikes Law. If this keeps up we will move from the fifth most LWOP in the country to the most. This will cost us millions of dollars and are we really safer? We need to return our system to a Justice System, not a Vengeance System. There is a difference !!!

  30. Maryanne Mesiti
    8:33 PM (20 minutes ago)
    to William.Brownsberger

    Life Without Parole 8/31/2019

    Retro activity for the inmates who have been serving decades for a Life Without Parole sentence is extremely important for many reasons. First, many of the incarcerated individuals have served decades , who have shown growth and reformation by participating in programs earning college degrees, and work in specialized dog training that service people with physical and mental challenges. It is only fair to give second chances to those who have earned it. Many of these Lifers are FIRST TIME OFFENDERS. Most of these crimes were committed between the ages of 18-25.

    Secondly, as mentioned before, many of Lifers have already served 25, 30. 40 years or more. Many of the victim’s family have passed on, or relocated. Where is there justice in that? We still need to give hope and second chances who have served. Returning citizens could serve the community well, by working in areas of social work, having a Bachelors Degree shows they took the time to educate themselves ,working with the youth and educating people about restorative justice.

    Third, many Lifers are getting older, health issues arise and so does the increased costs annually. Costs taxpayers more money and destroys more lives. Revenge comes at a high price.

    Maryanne Mesiti
    8:37 PM (15 minutes ago)

  31. Yes, not all first degree murders are the same. Perhaps fewer
    people should be charged with first degree in the first place? We should hold the line on this most serious charge and keep it mandatory life with no parole. Too much of this discussion is focused on the convicts and not on the families and friends of the victims. There is no moral equivalent comparing feelings of families of the murderers and victims. It is not about vengeance, but fairness and decency regarding the potential emotional impacts that early releases would have.

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