We applaud Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to honor the recommendations of the Maryland Parole Commission and allow the release of three men sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as minors.
It’s in line with actions by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2012 retroactively outlawed mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders. And it fits the governor’s stated goal of trying to “bring balance to Maryland’s criminal justice system” by, among other things, “offering individuals who have paid their debt to society a second chance to live productive lives.” In furtherance of this, Mr. Hogan last year issued an executive order requiring that holders of his office consider additional factors in determining whether to grant parole for a juvenile offender, including the person’s age at the time the crime was committed, the “lesser culpability of juvenile offenders as compared to adult offenders,” and the degree to which the individual has matured and demonstrated rehabilitation since the crime.
So, last week’s announcement that three men, ages 42 to 54, who’ve already served a collective 88 years in prison for first-degree murder and other crimes they committed as juveniles will be, or have been, released on parole is not a surprise. Still, it’s been almost a quarter century since this last occurred — since William Donald Schaefer held the governor’s post — and Mr. Hogan deserves praise for having the common sense to take action where his largely Democratic predecessors haven’t.
Forgive us, however, if the tribute is tepid.
The men Mr. Hogan allowed to be paroled — two by direct approval, and a third by declining to deny parole — amount to less than 1% of those currently in Maryland correctional facilities serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were under 18. And the action was a long time coming. It’s been more than three years since the ACLU of Maryland filed a federal class action suit against Mr. Hogan on behalf of a different set of juvenile lifers, claiming the state’s parole process denies them “meaningful opportunity for release” in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. That case is still pending in the courts.
And, as we’ve said numerous times, we’d prefer Mr. Hogan weren’t required to take any action at all. Maryland is one of only three states in the country, alongside Oklahoma and California, that requires the governor’s input in parole decisions, unnecessarily politicizing the process. In 47 other states — many far less progressive than Maryland — the parole commission is trusted to review and assess an inmate’s suitability for release on its own. That’s how it should be here, as well. The state legislature has for several years sought and failed to pass bills removing the governor from the process. A similar measure is under consideration for the legislative session starting in January, and we urge its passage.
This issue is particularly pressing as applied to juvenile offenders. Recent research shows that brain maturity isn’t reached until the mid-20s and that young people are more likely to: act impulsively, fall prey to peer pressure, neglect to account for the consequences of their actions, and take greater risks than adults. This makes them both more likely to be involved in criminal activity — and less culpable for it. Simply put, it’s more difficult for an adolescent to make good decisions in bad situations. That’s the reason we generally handle their cases separately from adults.
This of course doesn’t excuse bad behavior, but it does help explain it — and make the case for eventual rehabilitation. Take the disturbing case of Dawnta Harris, who ran over a Baltimore County police officer with a stolen Jeep after the officer confronted him while investigating a report of a suspicious vehicle in a neighborhood that had been hit by a string of burglaries. He was 16 at the time he rashly chose to take this woman’s life, rather than face consequences for the burglaries in which he and three others were involved. And now, he’s serving a life sentence, perhaps deservedly so in an eye-for-an-eye kind of world. But given his youth at the time, we’d like to think there’s a possibility for rehabilitation and societal contribution one day, despite the unlikelihood of that occurring in the state prison system.
Under Mr. Hogan’s Democratic predecessors, Govs. Martin O’Malley and Parris N. Glendening, there wasn’t even a hope. Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., had a better record on such issues than either Democrat while in office, though Mr. Glendening appears to have come around last year. At an appearance, he gave what The Sun characterized at the time as a “full-throated endorsement” of legislation to remove governors from the parole process, despite his “tough on crime” stance while in office.
It appears governors, too, can be rehabilitated.
This editorial first appeared in The Baltimore Sun on Nov. 25.