Gavel and handcuffs

Massachusetts Breaks New Ground in Limiting Youth Punishments

A series of State Court Report essays analyze the broader implications of the ruling.


This article is part of a content series on Commonwealth v. Mattis. You can read all the pieces in the series here

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that “emerging adults” — individuals who are 18, 19, or 20 years old — can’t be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Relying on the Massachusetts Constitution’s prohibition against “cruel or unusual punishments” and building on a 2013 Massachusetts decision that barred such sentences for minors,  is the first time a state high court has prohibited life without parole for people under 21. 

It’s a major development in state constitutional limits on punishment. Notably, Mattis offers far more protection than defendants receive under federal Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. In a 2011 case called Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited life sentences for minors but still allowed life sentences to be imposed on juveniles as a matter of discretion. Young people who had already turned 18 didn’t qualify for even this limited protection. 

Massachusetts had already parted ways with Miller to bar juvenile life sentences without parole. However,  Mattis extends this protection to young people who are no longer minors, relying heavily on scientific research indicating that emerging adults’ brain development is similar to that of juveniles. (One concurrence noted that “any parent of adult children can tell you” that the transition from childhood to adulthood isn’t a “binary act accomplished at age eighteen.”) 

The 4–3 ruling attracted multiple concurrences and dissents, all of which are well worth a read. In the immediate term, about 200 people serving life sentences are expected to become eligible for parole hearings as a direct result of . But to understand the ruling’s broader implications, State Court Report turned to three experts to produce a small essay series. (This is a new way of covering cases for us, so please send us feedback about whether you’d like to see more essay series like this!) 

Kristina Kersey, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee who also worked in youth defense for more than 20 years, offers an overview of where and how courts have interpreted state constitutions to provide unique protections to young people. Urging courts to “have the courage to treat kids like kids,” Kersey situates  Mattis alongside significant rulings in New Jersey, Washington, and several other states.

Kyle C. Barry of the State Law Research Initiative praises the legal reasoning adopted by the Massachusetts high court, which applied a “categorical framework” that assesses whether life in prison for emerging adults is consistent with “contemporary standards of decency.” Too often, Barry argues, courts have instead focused on whether a sentence is “grossly disproportionate” to the offense, which as a practical matter has done little to constrain draconian punishments. 

Finally, Northeastern University professor Martha Davis  focuses  on Mattis’s use of international sources, including British and Canadian law, to assess contemporary “standards of decency.” While this kind of comparative analysis used to be a “regular part of the judicial toolbox” for both state and federal courts, Davis argues that political controversies have discouraged many judges from looking to non-U.S. sources. Mattis shows, Davis argues, how “the world community can contribute to our domestic understanding of justice.”

Alicia Bannon is editor in chief for State Court Report. She is also director of the Judiciary Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.





Sole footer logo

A project of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law