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Maryland Senate Advances Ban On Life Without Parole For Minors

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Rachel Baye
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WYPR

Maryland could soon join 24 other states that have stopped sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. A bill making that change could get a final vote in the state Senate as early as Thursday.

The bill also would allow anyone convicted as a minor who has served at least 20 years to petition a court to reduce their sentence.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the bill gives the state “an opportunity to march toward a more equitable and just criminal justice system,” because the children sentenced to life without parole in Maryland are overwhelmingly Black.

“Among the people who are actually serving the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a crime that they committed when they were under the age of 18, 82% of those people are Black,” said Preston Shipp, senior policy counsel at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Shipp said 415 people who committed crimes as youth would be eligible to have their sentences reviewed under the bill. Of that group, 87% are Black.

“We work all over the country on these kinds of bills, and Maryland has the worst racial disparity in the nation,” Shipp said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings in the last 20 years that deal with sentences for juvenile offenders.

A 2012 ruling was a turning point, said Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project.

“The Supreme Court's ruling in 2012 said that you cannot have a mandatory life without parole sentence for a person who is under 18 years old, that you really had to look at the hallmark attributes of youth before issuing the sentence,” Rovner said.

Then in 2016, the court clarified its stance. Sentences of life without parole should be reserved for “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana.

Rovner said 24 states, plus Washington, D.C., have since stopped sentencing minors to life without the possibility of parole.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Senate spent a combined two hours debating whether Maryland should join those states.

Sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders “are very rarely used,” said Senate Minority Whip Michael Hough as he argued against the bill. “This is the worst of the worst, that we use life without parole for juvenile offenders.”

Hough and a few other Republicans shared details from past crimes committed by minors. Some details were so gruesome that Senate President Bill Ferguson reminded members to exercise “discretion” in what they say on the floor.

One example offered by Hough was the story of Andre Lawson, who was convicted in connection with the 2000 murder of James Stambaugh Jr., the night manager of a Burger King in Hunt Valley. At the time of the murder, Lawson was 17.

Stambaugh “was bound with duct tape, stabbed and beaten repeatedly during an after hours robbery that Lawson committed with three others,” Hough said. “He was beaten so badly that the duct tape that was put on his face was found in an autopsy in his brain.”

Hough argued that judges should continue to be permitted to sentence the people who commit crimes like this to life without the possibility of parole.

In response, Smith emphasized that the bill would not automatically release anyone from prison.

“Those that are 14, 15, 16, 17 [years old], who have yes, committed heinous crimes, after we pass this bill, will have an opportunity to demonstrate their redemptive qualities,” Smith said. “They'll have an opportunity to go before a judge and have that judge then make the decision if that person is ready to come back, and if it's in the best interest of our society as a whole.”

Fundamentally, Smith said, the bill is about whether people are capable of redemption.

In deciding whether to grant someone parole, judges are going to consider numerous factors, said Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore City Democrat.

“They're going to look at things like what has happened since that time? If this person was 15 years old, have they gotten their degrees? Have they done everything right? Do they have a perfect record? Have they been rehabilitated?” Carter said.

Carter also reminded her colleagues that young people’s brains are believed to continue developing until age 25.

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