Mass. lawmakers introduce bill to end life without parole

The Massachusetts State House is pictured on Jan 28, 2008. Via Flickr

Massachusetts State Representatives Jay Livingstone and Liz Miranda introduced an Act to reduce mass incarceration (H.1797) in the state House of Representatives on March 29. The bill would allow all people serving life sentences the opportunity to be eligible for a parole hearing after serving 25 years, also applying retroactively to currently incarcerated people. 

In a joint judiciary hearing on Oct. 5, the committee heard testimony on the proposed Act. Peggy Ritzer, mother of Colleen Ritzer who was murdered in 2013, spoke in opposition to the legislation. 

“This is not a liberal issue or conservative issue. This is an issue that must be focused on justice for victims who are no longer with us,” Ritzer said. “Her killer will be eligible for parole. While he was responsible for taking a life, he will be afforded a second chance. Our daughter will not.” 

According to the Emancipation Initiative, there are more than 1,050 incarcerated people in Massachusetts serving life sentences without the opportunity for parole. This ranks it second among states with the highest percentage of life sentences within its prison population, with a 629% increase since 1977. 

“I was really surprised as I looked at the data on the percentage of the jail population that was serving life without parole sentence,” Livingstone said. “If we really want to be serious about reducing prison populations, we need to address crimes beyond crimes that people consider non-violent offenses.”

This is the second term Livingstone is introducing this legislation. It now includes an added section on restorative justice, which would require the state to create a forum where family members of victims could have a discussion with the person who was sentenced for the crime. 

“Last term there were four of us sitting around a table that decided to file this thing, and now we have a much broader, wider, stronger coalition of people talking about it,” Livingstone said of having to reintroduce the legislation. And that’s how we build support for things. That’s the way things become law.”

The Campaign to End Life without Parole (CELWOP) is a recently formed organization working to build coalitions and galvanize public support to pass H.1797 and end life without parole in Massachusetts. 

Joseph Irizarry, a community organizer for CELWOP and mentor with Tufts University’s MyTERN re-entry program, is working to educate the public about the lives of incarcerated individuals who are serving life without parole. Irizarry, who was released on parole in 2020 after serving 20 years in state prison for fatally shooting Angel Rodriguez in 2000, was incarcerated when the campaign to end life without parole was first getting started. 

“The first time I heard anything about [CELWOP] was probably about 2018 … and I [saw] a lot of other guys were really excited about this bill that was coming out, giving them an opportunity to possibly see the parole board after 25 years,” Irizarry said. “I was excited for those men as well, because a lot of them have really matured while incarcerated … I just always imagine what they could do once they were free.”

Raised in the South Bronx, Irizarry witnessed his first violent crime at five years old and  went through 13 foster homes by the age of eight. After becoming a ward of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, he recalled how his foster parents would tell him he was going to grow up to become a gangster. By age 15, he was a gang leader.

At Irizarry’s first parole hearing, one of the board members spoke of the same prophecy, saying they could look at his life trajectory and predict his serving life in prison for murder without knowing the facts of his case. 

“That’s a sad case, in the sense that the state of Massachusetts could have prevented it, because I was a ward of the state,” Irizarry said. “Whose responsibility is it to make sure that a child growing up in a foster home is raised with the amount of respect that a child deserves, and also ensure that this child’s life path is actually being directed in the right way?”

Irizarry says his work with CELWOP reflects the common story shared by him and the men with whom he served time. 

“I love people and I truly do live a life of apology,” Irizarry said. “I want people to know that people can change for the better.”

Livingstone says it intuitively makes sense that a person is not always going to be the same person three decades after committing a crime, and incarcerated people serving life sentences should have opportunities to prove they can be productive members of society. 

Massachusetts should be a leader on criminal justice reform, and it has been in its history,” Livingstone said. “This is another example where Massachusetts could lead and guarantee everyone the right to a parole hearing.” 

Irizarry spoke of the frustration felt among incarcerated people each year as legislators on Beacon Hill allow the bill to fail. 

“Massachusetts is touted as a very liberal state, but every time this policy does not pass shows it is not that progressive,” Irizarry said. You would think that … we would be more forgiving, and we would be more merciful, and we would try to figure out ways to connect with people’s humanity, despite the crimes that they committed so that we can actually build our community and create healing.”