The General Assembly has passed two bills that, if they become law, would change the way the state treats people serving long prison sentences. WYPR’s Rachel Baye and Nathan Sterner delve into some of the details.
One of these bills would affect people who committed crimes when they were under 18. Explain exactly what it does.
The bill is known as the Juvenile Restoration Act. Most significantly, it prohibits courts from sentencing minors to life without the possibility of parole.
The other part of the bill applies to people who have already been sentenced for crimes they committed as minors. Once they have served at least 20 years, they can petition a judge to reduce their sentence.
Juveniles are only sentenced to life without parole if they commit very serious, violent crimes. Who would this affect?
Typically this would apply to children who are convicted of first-degree murder and in some cases, first-degree rape.
This is the core reason this has been so controversial, as Del. Nino Mangione, a Republican from Baltimore County, alluded to during Tuesday’s debate in the House.
“The problem I have with this bill as been discussed already is it actually ends up benefiting some very, very violent, some very, very evil people,” Mangione said. “Like for example, one I wanted to touch on is ... Lee Boyd Malvo of the DC sniper case.”
Malvo was 17 in October 2002, when he was one of two snipers convicted of killing people in the Washington region over a three-week period. He would technically be eligible to have his sentence reconsidered under this bill.
However, the bill does not guarantee anyone’s release. It just gives people serving these long sentences the opportunity to make their case before a judge that they have been rehabilitated.
Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who leads the House Judiciary Committee, said this bill gets at the fundamental purpose of our justice system.
“We don't want to talk about redemption. We don't. We want to talk about vengeance,” Clippinger said. “Our justice system cannot be about that. We have to believe in that spark of redemption in every single person, even those people who have done the most heinous, horrible crimes.”
The other bill relates to how people get approved for parole. Explain what it does.
If someone serving a life sentence is trying to get parole, they have to go through an extensive process. They have a hearing before two parole commissioners. Then they undergo a risk assessment. Then they have another hearing before the full 10-person Parole Commission, and a majority of the commission needs to agree to recommend the person for release.
And then the governor gets the final say. This bill would eliminate that last step, giving the Parole Commission the final say.
Is this about Gov. Larry Hogan specifically? Is this some sort of power grab by the Democrats in the legislature?
No, advocates have been pushing to get the governor out of the parole process for many years.
Maryland is one of only three states that gives the governor this power.
Governor Parris Glendening, who was governor from 1995 to 2003, famously refused to grant parole to people serving life sentences. He started a trend, and it wasn’t really broken until Hogan started granting parole to those people. But Hogan has still only granted parole to a small portion of those recommended by the Parole Commission.
Meanwhile, Glendening has become an outspoken advocate on the issue. He says he made a mistake when he was governor, and that politics should be removed from parole decisions.
Where do these two bills stand now?
The House and Senate have both passed them. However, the House made some changes that the Senate needs to approve. Once both chambers agree on versions of each, they will go to the governor.