In the last decade, several states have started addressing the excessive sentences imposed on children following the racially biased “superpredator” era when states began prosecuting tens of thousands of children as adults and subjecting thousands to life imprisonment without parole or its equivalent. EJI won several cases at the U.S. Supreme Court and many states have started repealing extreme, excessive punishments for teenagers. Maryland is the most recent jurisdiction to join this trend.
Overriding a gubernatorial veto, Maryland lawmakers this week enacted bipartisan legislation abolishing life imprisonment without parole for children, making Maryland the 25th state in the nation to ban juvenile life-without-parole sentences.
The Juvenile Restoration Act (SB 494) provides that, when sentencing a minor convicted as an adult, a court may not impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or release.
Individuals who were convicted as an adult for an offense committed when they were under 18 and who have been imprisoned for at least 20 years may file a motion with the court to reduce the duration of their sentence. The new law requires that a court shall conduct a hearing on the motion and may reduce the sentence if the court finds that the individual is not a danger to the public and that the interests of justice will be better served by a reduced sentence.
More than 400 people in Maryland who were sentenced to life or life-equivalent sentences for offenses when they were children and have spent at least 20 years in prison are eligible for review of their sentences under the new law—including 114 people who are now 50 or older.
Maryland has the nation’s highest proportion of Black youth sentenced to life without parole, a point emphasized by Delegate Jazz Lewis, who sponsored the bill in the house. “Over 82 percent of juveniles charged as adults for life and life-equivalent sentences in Maryland are Black. The fact of the matter is that these sentences are reserved almost exclusively for Black children,” he said.
“We can no longer be sentencing children to die in prison, a practice that targets children of color at a vastly disproportionate rate.”
Maryland is now one of 31 states that have either prohibited life-without-parole sentences for children or have no one serving the sentence.
“Any human being who reaches his 37th birthday is a different person then, than he was at the age of 17. We all know that from our own experiences. Teenagers act irresponsibly, some terribly irresponsibly. But people can change as they grow up,” Republican Senator Chris West, who sponsored the bill, said in a statement.
“Redemption is possible. When this happens, as a society we should rejoice.”