By Elizabeth Barber
BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts legislators passed a bill that would grant people convicted of first-degree murder while under age 18 a chance at parole after serving at least 20 years of their sentence.
The bill, which was approved late Tuesday, comes after rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and Massachusetts' highest court that found imposing life sentences without parole on juvenile offenders to be unconstitutional.
The state’s court, saying that juveniles’ brains are fundamentally different from those of adults, ruled that youth convicted of first-degree murder should be sentenced as if convicted of second-degree murder - a life-term, with parole eligibility after 15 to 25 years. That sentencing method remains in effect until this bill or another addressing the issue becomes law.
Senate approval of the bill by a vote of 37-2 follows House approval of a similar measure last month. Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, has not indicated if he will sign it.
Supporters of the Senate bill noted it does not guarantee parole to juvenile offenders but offers them the chance to plead their cases before a board. Undeserving applicants still will "never see the light of day," said Will Brownsberger, a Democrat who serves as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Senate blocked an effort to impose a 35-year minimum sentence before parole could be granted.
"The crime and its penalty must be proportional," said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Republican who had backed that measure.
The House and Senate bills on Wednesday move toward a conference committee charged with working out a compromise bill.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Trott)