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Md. lawmakers override Hogan’s veto, ban juvenile life without parole

The Maryland General Assembly overrode Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto Saturday and enacted legislation prohibiting juveniles from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Legislative supporters of the override called the prohibition an affirmation of the principle that young offenders are not beyond redemption given time for maturity, remorse and rehabilitation.

Under the new law, the most severe sentence for a crime committed by someone under 18 is life in prison with the possibility of parole after serving 20 years. The convict could then petition the court for parole, which could be granted based on a judicial finding that the heinousness of the offense has been outweighed by the individual’s personal growth and the interests of justice.

“This bill is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Sen. Chris West, noting that a convict’s release would be at a judge’s discretion.

“(But) all of us deep down inside believe in the possibility of redemption,” added West, R-Baltimore County and the bill’s chief Senate sponsor.

“People can change. Redemption is possible,” West said. “When that happens, as a society we should rejoice. We should be willing to give such a person a second chance.”

Del. Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George’s and the chief House sponsor, pressed his colleague’s to override the governor’s veto.

“The brain science shows that children are still developing and they do terrible acts but they shouldn’t necessarily die in prison if they have the capacity for change,” Lewis said. “I can’t imagine the judge will let the most heinous folks out if they are not absolutely rehabilitated, first and foremost.”

Hogan, in his veto message Thursday, said he is a “firm believer in second chances” for juvenile offenders but that judges must have discretion to punish those “who have committed crimes so heinous that they are automatically charged as adults,” including first-degree murder and first degree rape.

“These are serious crimes that require the most serious of consequences, which is why a judge or jury sentences the individual to a lengthy determinate sentence, life imprisonment, or life imprisonment without parole,” Hogan wrote.

“Finally, this measure would contribute to the retraumatization of the victims of these heinous crimes,” Hogan added. “This legislation would force victims to come to court potentially several more times and subject themselves to living through the nightmare once again, in addition to any future parole hearings.”

Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll, urged his colleagues in vain Saturday to sustain Hogan’s veto, saying some crimes are so cruel that the appropriate punishment is life in prison without the possibility of parole even if the offender was under 18.

“We still need to have a bright line that cannot be crossed in the most heinous of circumstances,” Ready said.

The General Assembly’s action 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 new law, Senate Bill 494, provides no such judicial discretion for a life without parole sentence – a distinction that drew criticism from the Senate’s top Republican earlier this session.

The possibility of parole for juvenile offenders should not apply to “the worst of the worst cases we have in Maryland,” Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire said during earlier 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.”

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