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Maryland high court defers to legislature, rejects rule to reduce youthful offenders’ sentences

“The General Assembly hasn’t had their final say on this,” says Court of Appeals Judge Joseph M. Getty, a former Maryland state delegate and senator.(The Daily Record/File Photo)

Maryland’s top court this week rejected a proposed Judiciary rule to give circuit court judges discretion to reduce the life sentences of convicts who committed their crimes before age 25 and who have served at least 24 years in prison, saying such policy decisions are best left to the General Assembly.

The Court of Appeals’ action on Tuesday followed its decision in June to defer action on the proposal based on its concern that it conflicted with a newly enacted state law permitting 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.

“The General Assembly hasn’t had their final say on this,” said Court of Appeals Judge Joseph M. Getty, a former Maryland state delegate and senator.

“I’m sure they will be considering other ‘second chance’ legislation in the coming session,” Getty added. “The deliberative forum of the General Assembly is a much better process for working out some of these details that we have problems with today. I would encourage the advocates to renew their efforts with the General Assembly (when it reconvenes) in January.”

Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said Thursday that the Maryland justice system’s handling of young adult offenders will be an issue for discussion during the 2022 General Assembly term.

“Next session we are going to take a hard look at the lingering juvenile justice issues,” said Smith, D- Montgomery. “The debate is not without controversy. As a policy matter, we will continue to consult the literature.”

The rejected proposal would have also enabled judges to reduce the prison terms of inmates sentenced to less than life for crimes committed before age 25. The punishments could have been reduced after the convicts had served the longer of 15 years or 60 percent of their sentences.

The Judiciary’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure’s proposal set the age at 25 — rather than the statutory age of 18 — based on scientific studies showing that the human brain is not fully developed until then, leaving young adults with an underdeveloped sense of responsibility and making them prone to recklessness and impulsivity.

On the other end of the age spectrum, the rejected proposal would have enabled 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 proposal reflected empirical evidence that the incidents of recidivism decline sharply with advanced age.

The legislation enacted this past General Assembly session did not address these older inmates.

In rejecting the proposed rule, several Court of Appeals judges credited the science but said the legislature – not the courts – should initially determine its significance with regard to sentencing.

“The law evolves and we need to evolve along with it,” Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said.

“I remain encouraged that we will continue this (evolution), whether it is supporting within the court a rule that could get us part of the way or for the court to stand back and let the legislature do its work and we will react to that,” Barbera added. “I strongly believe and certainly hope that there is much that can be done in this area to improve justice, and so I look forward to what follows in the ensuing weeks, months and let’s hope not years.”

The ill-fated proposal drew support from the offices of Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby and Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy, who said it would offer second chances for truly rehabilitated criminals.

But Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger and the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center opposed it as compelling victims or their surviving family members to relive the horror of the crime whenever the criminal would be up for earlier release under the proposal.

Judge Michele D. Hotten noted this strong difference of opinion, saying that “there are many competing interests and factors that are best resolved in the legislative forum and not by the court.”