top of page

OJD Case Law Corner Vol. 13: Commonwealth v. Mattis

Our appellate courts have been quiet this past month on delinquency matters, which makes for a great opportunity to highlight noteworthy cases coming out of other states. This month, I’d like to highlight a recent and groundbreaking opinion out of Massachusetts: Commonwealth v. Mattis, 493 Mass. 216, 223, 224 N.E.3d 410 (2024). The case has been followed and remarked upon by many, including an article titled “Massachusetts Reminds Youth Defense Attorneys to Consider State Constitutions: By holding that life without parole sentences are unconstitutional for anyone under 21, the Massachusetts high court goes far above the federal floor.” As the title indicates, Massachusetts has categorically banned LWOP as a punishment for adolescents aged 18 to 21.


The opinion is worth the read. There is a wonderful, lengthy discussion about adolescent brain science as well as an evaluation of jurisprudence on the topic (“Massachusetts, like most States, distinguishes emerging adults from older adults on a range of issues, granting rights and imposing responsibilities in a graduated manner.”), as well as a discussion of where other nations stand in this analysis (“The United Kingdom has banned life without parole for any offender under twenty-one years of age at the time of the offense. And in 2022, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that life without parole sentences were unconstitutional for all offenders, regardless of age. The foregoing examples suggest that the ‘evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society’ referenced in Miller trend away from life without parole for emerging adults.”) (all citations omitted).


In a series of cases responding to challenges to juvenile sentences, the Supreme Court has consistently opined that the ‘mitigating qualities of youth’ must be taken into consideration when it comes to sentencing.” . . . [In Miller,] “the Court reasoned [that] the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life without parole for juvenile offenders because such a scheme precludes a consideration of youth and the circumstances and characteristics attendant to it.” . . . “Ultimately, this court went further than Miller and concluded that because it is not possible to demonstrate that a juvenile offender is ‘irretrievably depraved,’ under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, such a sentence is cruel or unusual as imposed on a juvenile in any circumstance.” . . . “Our comprehensive review informs us that Supreme Court precedent, as well as our own, dictates that youthful characteristics must be considered in sentencing, that the brains of emerging adults are not fully developed and are more similar to those of juveniles than older adults, and that our contemporary standards of decency in the Commonwealth and elsewhere disfavor imposing the Commonwealth's harshest sentence on this cohort. Consequently, we conclude that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for emerging adult offenders violates art. 26.” Commonwealth v. Mattis, 493 Mass. 216, 223, 224 N.E.3d 410 (2024) (all citations omitted).


Of course, a case out of Massachusetts is not in any way binding precedent in North Carolina, but such opinions can and should be used as persuasive authority whenever possible. For youth defenders who also represent “adult” clients in this age range, the opportunity to argue standards of decency is relatively clear. But youth defenders whose clients are still in the delinquency courtroom can also take advantage of the opportunity to remind judges during dispositional hearings or even transfer hearings that what we know about the young brain – and how we treat it in the legal system – continues to evolve. It’s a great channel to argue that the children in the delinquency courts are far from fully developed and far from reaching their full potentials. Commonwealth v. Mattis paves the way to compare the youth in our court systems to how youth in other states are being regarded and treated and thus to remind our stakeholders to truly focus on rehabilitation and resources to support the proper development of the next generation.




bottom of page