Prison-file

(The Center Square) – A proposed bill that would give prisoners sentenced to life without the possibility of parole a chance to appear before the parole board after serving 25 years drew speakers from both sides at a hearing of the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Liz Miranda, D-Suffolk, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation would not apply to the most violent offenders. She told the committee she would oppose a sentence of life without parole for the man who killed her brother in 2017.

“I believe life without parole is death by another name, and I do not believe in death sentences,” Miranda said.

Kirsten Engle spoke in favor of the bill. Her mother was murdered in 1999.

“My sadness, my loss are in no way mitigated by the fact that her alleged perpetrator, my father, has been in jail for over 20 years,” Engle told the committee. “Never-ending punishment doesn’t lessen my pain.”

Four out of every 10 inmates in the state serving life without parole are older than 55, Miranda said.

Ray Champagne served 45 years of a life sentence without parole for a 1978 murder. He was exonerated after new evidence showed he did not commit the 1978 stabbing of a fellow inmate and was released from prison in 2020. He questioned if the sentences actually work.

“People can change,” Champagne told the committee. “I wasn’t always a good person and, hopefully, I am now."

Champagne said many of the older inmates have medical needs.

“What purpose does it serve to keep that person in prison?” Champagne said.

But others vehemently opposed the bill.

Kathleen Koonz lost her elderly mother and stepfather in a home invasion in 2016. Her stepfather was stabbed and died immediately. Her mother, who was in a wheelchair, died weeks later.

“Unlike the victims, the murderers are not being deprived of life experiences, albeit in prison. They’re given opportunities to take courses, to read books, write, paint and more,” Koonz said. “Family murder victims can’t have any of this."

Tom and Peggy Ritzer’s 24-year-old daughter, Colleen, was killed by a 14-year-old student in 2013. Because of his age, Colleen’s killer will have a chance at parole at age 25. The Ritzers said they hoped the committee would not recommend its passage.

“It’s infuriating and disrespectful to families and victims,” Tom Ritzer told the committee. “Don’t do this.”