The Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to legislation that would prohibit murderers and rapists from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if they were juveniles when they killed or raped.
The Senate could vote as early as Thursday on final approval of the measure, which would permit juveniles given lifetime sentences to become eligible for parole after serving 20 years.
Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. “Will” Smith Jr., a sponsor of the bill, said the legislation gives juvenile offenders “an option for a second shot” and does not guarantee that young killers and rapists will be released from prison.
“The fundamental question about this bill is do you believe in the redemptive quality of the human condition,” Smith, D-Montgomery, said during floor debate.
Parole candidates would have to show their release would be “in the interest of justice” and that they do not pose “a threat to public safety,” Smith said. “No one who commits these heinous crimes will be released.”
Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore City and a co-sponsor, said that “we need to reimagine, redo the way we allow children to be sentenced.”
The Democratic-controlled Senate’s voice vote followed its rejection, on largely party-line votes, of 10 Republican amendments that would have preserved the possibility of life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles who murder multiple people, children or vulnerable adults, or who rape minors.
As of Dec. 31, 47 convicts in Maryland were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed while juveniles, Smith said, citing Maryland Division of Correction data.
The Senate’s preliminary vote followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment because of their lack of maturity. The high court’s decision allows for judges to exercise their discretion to render life sentences without parole for the most heinous crimes and the most incorrigible offenders.
The legislation, Senate Bill 494, would provide no such judicial discretion for a life without parole sentence – a distinction that drew criticism from many Republican senators.
The possibility of parole for juvenile offenders should not apply to “the worst of the worst cases we have in Maryland,” Senate Republican Leader Bryan W. Simonaire said during floor debate.
“We hear of restoration and redemption” for juvenile killers, said Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel. “But let me remind you there is no redemption for the victims or these families. Their loved ones are gone forever. They don’t get to come back after 10 or 20 years.”
Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, said life without parole should be an available sentence for juveniles convicted of “heinous, really evil crimes,” such as “gunning down innocent people in a fit of hate and rage.”
Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, R-Baltimore County, called the bill the latest example of legislators being too “lenient” on criminals.
“We don’t have the death penalty anymore, so we give life in prison,” Salling said.
“And now we have life in prison, and we want to be lenient there also,” he added. “Make people accountable. Give them life and a day.”
Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll, said parole should not be available for juveniles who murder adults deemed vulnerable due to a severe physical or mental disability.
“The law is there to provide justice and to set a standard for what we accept in society,” Ready said. “We have laws and safety in place for a reason and standards that we want people to meet for a reason.”
The bill has been cross-filed in the House of Delegates. Del. Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George’s, is chief sponsor of House Bill 409.