ANNAPOLIS — Juvenile justice and parole reform are needed to cure a Maryland prison system in which inmates are serving overly long sentences for crimes they committed as young adults, a justice policy analyst told a Senate panel Thursday.
Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, pressed for raising the age of offenders considered juveniles from the teens to 25.
Schindler cited medical studies showing that the human brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s, leaving people susceptible to impulsive acts and peer pressure into young adulthood.
“Eighteen is not a magic birthday,” Schindler told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “The brain is still developing through our early 20s.”
Schindler addressed the panel as it seeks ways to improve a state prison system that the institute concluded last year is among the most racially disproportionate in the United States; more than 70% of the incarcerated population is African American, with many inmates entering the system before age 25.
The Washington-based institute studies and advocates for justice reform.
Calling young adulthood “the knucklehead years,” Schindler said youthfulness must continue to be regarded as a mitigating factor in sentencing through age 25.
Young inmates should also be held in specialized, low-population units where the emphasis is on rehabilitation and where older prisoners are permitted to serve as mentors because they can relate to young offenders who are “the people they were” at that age, Schindler said.
“We can do much better” in keeping young offenders from a life of crime, Schindler said, adding, “Right now we can hardly do much worse.”
The criminal justice system should focus on “meeting the needs of people who are harmed — and meeting the needs of people who caused those harms,” he said.
But Caroline County State’s Attorney Joe Riley cautioned the Senate panel against treating young adults as juveniles when they are convicted of violent crimes.
“I don’t think there’s appetite in the general public” for treating young-adult murderers as juveniles, Riley said on behalf of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association. “I just don’t see where we can stand by and recommend that (violent criminal) is a juvenile kind of offender up to age 25.”
Schindler also voiced support for legislation that would remove the governor from having the final say in parole decisions, saying politics should have no place in determining when a prisoner is released. Similar legislation has failed in past General Assembly sessions amid opposition from Gov. Larry Hogan and legislators who note that Hogan has approved more parole requests than his recent predecessors.