By Gintautas Dumcius

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- With two dozen days remaining before they break from legislating and focus on campaigns, Massachusetts House and Senate leaders are taking different approaches to legislation dealing with parole eligibility for juvenile murderers.

The Senate on Tuesday will take up a sentencing bill prepared by its Ways and Means Committee that is markedly different from bill that cleared the full House, setting up another conflict for legislative leaders to address before the July 31 end of formal sessions for the 2013-2014 cycle.

"It is important that with precious little time left in this formal session, we do need to pass a bill," said Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester).

Individuals who were under the age of 18 when they committed murder would be eligible for parole after serving prison sentences of 20 to 30 years, under a bill the Senate is expected to consider on Tuesday.

The House passed its version of the bill in June, on a 127-16 vote.

The House bill (H 4184) takes a two-pronged approach. Juveniles who are convicted of first-degree felony murder would be parole eligible in 20 to 25 years, while juveniles convicted of first-degree murder with deliberate premeditation or malice would be parole eligible between 25 and 30 years.

The Senate bill does not differentiate between juveniles convicted of different types of first degree murder, according to Sen. William Brownsberger, the Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee.

The bills seek to address recent cases at the state and federal level where judges have ruled that sentencing juvenile killers to life without parole is unconstitutional because they are developmentally different from adults.

If the House and Senate can't agree on a compromise bill, individuals who were juveniles when they committed murder and have served 15 years of their life sentences become immediately eligible for parole, the default set-up due to a Supreme Judicial Court ruling issued in December 2013.

A Supreme Court decision in 2012 similarly ruled against life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.

The Senate also differs with the House in another aspect of the bill: If parole is denied, the Senate bill creates a "setback period" in which juvenile murderers would have to wait up to 10 years until their next parole hearing.

Brownsberger called the House version of the provision "very sweeping" since it would apply the 10-year parole eligibility change to both juveniles and adults serving life sentences.

Some activists, including the Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Youth, have been pushing for parole eligibility within 15 years for juvenile murderers and the current five-year "setback period," citing developmental differences between juvenile brains and adult brains.

But Tarr, the Senate's minority leader, said the House and Senate bills do not go far enough.

He plans to offer on Tuesday two amendments to the bill: One increasing the range to 25 to 35 years until parole eligibility and another amendment making the bill apply retroactively.

The Senate bill's penalty for first-degree murder overlaps with the penalty for second-degree murder, Tarr said, noting that second degree murder sets parole eligibility after 15 to 25 years.

Second degree murder is considered a lesser crime than first-degree because it involves lesser culpability. "They deserve to have distinct penalties," Tarr said.

Brownsberger said the bill takes a "responsible approach," describing the legislation as "down the middle."

Brownsberger added that the 20-to-30 year period cannot be applied retroactively, calling such a move unconstitutional. The bill only affects juveniles convicted of murder after the bill becomes law, he said.

The Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, which is part of the Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Youth, on Monday circulated an email calling for the sentencing bill to be "stopped in its tracks" and announcing plans to gather Tuesday morning at the State House to oppose the bill.

Gail Garinger, who served as a judge in Juvenile Court for 13 years and has signed onto the Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Youth, said 15 years is a "reasonable period of time" before a juvenile convicted of murder makes his or her first appearance before the state parole board. 

Bob Gittens, a former chair of the Parole Board and prosecutor, is also a member of the coalition and supports the 15-year parole eligibility term.

Juveniles' immaturity and lack of emotional development should be considered, he said.

In his own experience, he said, he has seen a "wide range" of juveniles who ended up being charged with first degree murder, and circumstances varied widely.

Garinger said she was disappointed that neither bill seeks to give jurisdiction of juvenile murderers over to Juvenile Court.

Juvenile Court judges are in the best position to assess and impose an appropriate sentence, she said, adding that during her time on the bench she presided over cases involving "many heinous crimes."

"I think juveniles, youth are really different," she said.