COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Feb. 12, 2021)—Sentencing juveniles to life without parole could essentially end in Maryland if legislation going through the General Assembly becomes law.
"No child should ever be told that they have no hope for the future but to die in prison. We are all of us more than the worst mistake we made as a teenager," Del. Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George's, the bill's sponsor, told Capital News Service in an email last month.
The bill, HB0409, also known as the Juvenile Restoration Act, would do two main things:
• Allow courts to deviate from sentence minimums required by the law when dealing with children younger than 18, and no longer allow the sentencing of juveniles to life without the possibility of parole or release.
• Allow someone who has already served at least 20 years for a crime committed as a minor to apply for a sentence reduction. In such cases, the sentencing court will conduct a hearing and the individual could receive a shortened sentence or even be released.
Jayna Peterson, an intern for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, emphasized that the bill "isn't a 'get out of jail free' card."
"It will give people who have been rehabilitated the chance to have a life," she said.
She added that those who are still risks will stay in prison and serve out their sentences.
Advocates for the bill also argue that it is needed to help address the large racial disparity present in Maryland's penal system.
"Over 400 people would be immediately eligible for this review, meaning they have already served more than 20 years for a crime they committed when they were under 18," Lewis said in the email. "Of this population, 87% are Black, which is the worst racial disparity in the nation. The Juvenile Restoration Act is therefore needed to begin to correct a gross racial injustice."
A 2019 study done by the Justice Policy Institute, a national justice reform nonprofit, found that proportionally, Maryland incarcerates more Black citizens than any other state, with Black inmates comprising 71.3% of Maryland's total prison population—"and more than double the national average" of 32%.
Individuals who reported their race as Black alone make up only 13.4% of the U.S. population and 31.1% of Maryland's population as of July 1, 2019, according to the United States Census Bureau. Additionally, 82% of youths sentenced to life without parole in Maryland are Black, the highest proportion of any state, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national organization focused on ending the extreme sentencing of children, based on records received from the Maryland Department of Corrections.
Preston Shipp, the senior policy counsel for the campaign, said the bill is "a step towards correcting just a terrible racial injustice."
Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have already abolished juvenile life without parole.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that juvenile life without parole was unconstitutional in nonhomicide-related offenses.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that juvenile life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional in all but the most extreme cases.
The court found children to be constitutionally different from adults, therefore sentencing a child to life without parole would go against the Eighth Amendment, barring cruel and unusual punishment.
"Even though the court in that case (Miller v. Alabama) was dealing explicitly and specifically with mandatory life without parole for kids, what they went on to say is that it would be unconstitutional except in the rarest of cases, because it leaves no room for second chances," Shipp said.
In the 2016 case Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled that the Miller decision held retroactively for all cases that had been sentenced prior.
The states and jurisdictions that abolished juvenile life without parole based their decisions "largely on these (Supreme Court cases') holdings," Lewis wrote in the email.
"States as diverse as Texas and Massachusetts, Oregon and Arkansas, California and West Virginia, North Dakota and Nevada have all concluded that no child should ever be told that they have no hope for the future but to die in prison," he added.
Peterson said that Maryland is essentially using a loophole to sentence minors to life without parole.
Shipp clarified by adding that "that's what makes that 20-year judicial review in the Juvenile Restoration Act so terribly important," because the Maryland judicial system has ways of giving "de facto life without parole sentences."
"Somebody who's 15 who gets a 70-year sentence or a 90-year sentence … they're never gonna live to see the end of that sentence," Shipp said.
A recent study from Montclair State University found that juvenile lifers "can be considered low-impact releases."
The study analyzed juvenile lifers in Philadelphia, and, as of December 2019, of the 174 released during the time of the study, only six were rearrested — 3.45% — and only two of those six were reconvicted—a recidivism rate of 1.14%.
The study compared its findings with the national rearrest rate of homicide offenders, of which "an estimated 30% are rearrested within two years of release."
The bill has received widespread public support on social media by celebrities including actors Alyssa Milano and Jon Cryer, former Baltimore Raven Torrey Smith, and Meena Harris, a lawyer and niece to Vice President Kamala Harris.
Supporters used the hashtag #SupportTheJRA on Twitter.
Joseph Riley, the state's attorney for Caroline County and legislative chair of the Maryland State's Attorney's Association, testified in opposition during a Jan. 21 hearing, on behalf of the association.
Riley made clear that his opposition focused on the sentence-reduction aspect of the bill, saying that "it's not a second chance." Adults convicted of a crime — or juveniles convicted of adult crimes — have more than a dozen ways and opportunities to challenge their conviction, Riley testified.
Riley told Capital News Service that before one would even have their case looked at under the bill's terms, they would've exhausted all other efforts to "attack" their sentence, each time getting denied.
Victims are notified during these attempts, Riley added, causing them to continually relive that trauma and forcing them to decide, if they are permitted, whether or not to attend each hearing—something Riley said the prosecution would encourage them to do in order to help the verdict stick.
Under the Juvenile Restoration Act, an individual whose motion for a sentence reduction was denied, or only granted in part, would be able to petition the court again after at least three years—they may do this up to three times.
Riley told Capital News Service that his main issue is with an individual's ability for a second and third reduction attempt after being denied under the bill initially.
"This will give you a 14th, 15th and 16th way to attack a sentence," Riley testified. "At some point, when will we let the victims rest in the state of Maryland?"
Lewis sponsored a similar bill during the 2020 legislative session, but it failed to advance when the Legislature concluded early due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Juvenile Restoration Act is cross-filed in the Senate under bill number SB0494.
Senator Chris West, R-Baltimore County, is its lead sponsor.
"We all hope that as members of the General Assembly we can pass legislation which would facilitate justice being done in society," West said. "I think that the feeling of those of us who support this bill, is that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole, even for a heinous crime committed when the person was 16 or 17 years old, is just over the line."
West added that "everybody at the age of 17 does irresponsible things," and while that doesn't excuse the more extreme actions, sentencing a child to life because of it, "just sounds to us to be unjust."
SB0494 is scheduled for a hearing in the Judicial Proceedings Committee on Feb. 17, at 1 p.m.
No date has been set yet for a committee vote on HB0409.
"We're the only country in the world that would sentence a child to die in prison," said Shipp. "For too long, Maryland has denied its kids hope."