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Maryland high court rejects rule to reduce young adult offenders’ sentences

The Court of Appeals has the authority to determine “what is good judicial policy, what does justice mean for the courts,” said Alan Wilner, a retired Court of Appeals judge who now serves as the chair of the judiciary's rules committee. (File photo)

The Court of Appeals has the authority to determine “what is good judicial policy, what does justice mean for the courts,” says Alan M. Wilner, a retired Court of Appeals judge who now serves as chair of the judiciary’s rules committee. (File photo)

Maryland’s top court on Monday returned to the state judiciary’s rules committee a proposal to give circuit court judges discretion to reduce the life sentences of convicts who committed their crimes before reaching age 25 and who have served at least 24 years in prison.

Court of Appeals judges voiced concern that the proposed rule differs from a newly enacted state law that permits the judicial reduction of life sentences for those who committed their crimes before reaching age 18, instead of 25, and after serving at least 20 years, instead of 24. Judges on the high court also noted that no other state had set by judicial regulation age 25 as a benchmark for potential sentence reduction.

The high court’s action followed dueling testimony on the proposed rule by the committee’s chair Alan M. Wilner — supported by the state’s attorneys of Prince George’s County and Baltimore – and Baltimore County’s chief prosecutor.

Wilner told the high court that the proposed rule’s application to criminals older than the new law’s cutoff at age 18 was within “the revisory power of the court over its own decisions” regarding sentencing.

The Court of Appeals has the authority to determine “what is good judicial policy, what does justice mean for the courts,” said Wilner, a retired Court of Appeals judge.

Wilner’s comments were echoed by Doyle L. Niemann, who addressed the high court on behalf of Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy, and Marilyn J. Mosby, Baltimore city state’s attorney.

“This is really a court function, not a political one,” Niemann said, referring to the authority to reduce a sentence. “The court’s role is to look at justice in its full measure.”

But Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger pressed the Court of Appeals to defer to the General Assembly’s determination that the cutoff should be 18, not 25.

“The legislature has spoken,” Shellenberger said.

He voiced concern that the combination of the new law and a new judicial rule would give convicts more opportunities to petition for their release, thereby compelling their victims and the victims’ families to relive the trauma of the crimes with each petition and decision whether to testify in court.

The proposal, now back before the committee, would also enable judges to reduce the prison terms of inmates sentenced to at least 15 years – but short of life – for crimes committed before age 25. The punishments could be reduced after the convicts have served the longer of 15 years or 60 percent of their sentences, under the proposal.

On the other end of the age spectrum, the proposed rule would enable judges to reduce the life or decades-long sentences for those who have served at least 15 years and have reached the age of 60.

The proposed rule’s consideration came amid scientific studies showing that the human brain is not fully developed until age 25, leaving young adults with an underdeveloped sense of responsibility and making them prone to recklessness and impulsivity, advocates of the change note.

With regard to older convicts, the proposal also reflects empirical evidence that the incidents of recidivism decline sharply with advanced age.

Under the proposal, a judge could modify, reduce or vacate a prison sentence based on the convict’s petition describing his or her rehabilitation and other reasons for early release. A judge could also reject the petition, which would have to be filed in the circuit court where the convict was sentenced and with a copy provided to the local state’s attorney.

The state’s attorney would have 30 days in which to file a response to the petition. The state’s attorney would also have to notify each victim or their representative of the pending petition and their right to testify at the hearing on the convict’s bid for early release.

In sending the rule back to the committee, Court of Appeals Judge Joseph M. Getty – a former Maryland state senator – said greater consideration should be given to how a new judicial rule would complement and not contradict the new law, Senate Bill 494.

Judge Brynja M. Booth noted the national trend toward juvenile justice reform and wondered aloud whether the cutoff age should be younger than 25.

“We’re on the cusp of evolving standards,” Booth said. “I would be interested in what other jurisdictions are doing.”

The standing committee proposed the rule with the assistance of Paul B. DeWolfe, the state’s chief public defender, and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh.

Following enactment of the new law – and in anticipation of a new judicial rule — DeWolfe created a Decarceration Initiative office to represent convicts seeking reductions in their sentences after serving the qualifying number of years. The office is directed by Brian Saccenti, who had led the public defender’s appellate division.

“If adopted, this change will allow judges to take into account the efforts a person has made while incarcerated, and release rehabilitated individuals after they’ve served a lengthy period of incarceration,” Saccenti said in a statement. “At a moment when society is reckoning with the damage wrought by mass incarceration and the appalling racial disparities in whom we lock up, this rule change allows judges to address these problems by reducing the sentences of individuals who have served a lengthy period of time and can now be safely released.”

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