Kareem Hasan left prison this year after 37 years behind bars. Now that he's free, he sees something that troubles him.
"Every time I go out, I see a bunch of kids in the street," the 55-year-old said.
Hasan spoke at Morgan State University on Saturday during a town hall meeting on Maryland's criminal justice policies. He recalled an evening driving around with his sister when they almost hit a teen who was out playing football.
When Hasan asked the boy why he was in the street, the teen said they had nowhere else to go. Hasan — one of 26 convicted felons released from prison this year after the state's high court found that their trials were unfair — worries that flaws in the state's criminal system are still hurting black youths.
The forum, organized by the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, touched not only on the state's sentencing laws, but also on how community issues are linked to the criminal justice system. Hasan, for instance, says a lack of recreational opportunities leaves kids more time to get into trouble.
"We've got to give the youth someplace to go," he said.
The event aimed to bring attention to the issue of juveniles serving life sentences, as well as the state's felony murder law, in which someone can be convicted and sentenced to life for being an accomplice or otherwise involved in a killing.
The Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative advocates for people who are in prison on lengthy sentences.
Hasan, known as Karl Brown when he was convicted of murder in 1976, was serving a life sentence but released from prison in May under a Court of Appeals ruling that found juries had been given faulty instructions in trials before 1980.
Of the 26 people who have been released under the ruling — known as the Unger decision — 25 are black, said Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who is working on many of the cases.
The judges in the original cases were all white men, and at the time of the trials, blacks were routinely excluded from juries. Millemann has reviewed 48 Unger cases and found three defense attorneys who were eventually disbarred.
"The people who we call the Unger class never had a fair trial," Millemann said. "They went in when they were young, many of them teenagers. They grew up in prison."
Most of the defendants would have already been paroled if not for a state policy change in 1993 that left them ineligible, he said.
The Sentencing Project, a national organization, found that 77 percent of those sentenced to life in prison in Maryland are black — the highest rate in the nation, said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the group. The national average is about 47 percent.
Dee Gardner of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center said that in the Unger cases, the center wants to ensure that victims' families know what's going on and have a voice in the process. In at least one case, surviving family members were not notified of the defendant's release.
Hasan said he had a message for victims. "I don't want the victims to think that we are not remorseful," he said.
Keynote speakers included state Sen. Lisa Gladden, who pushed to repeal the state's death penalty. She urged the audience to advocate for issues such as improved schools.
"I don't believe that repealing the death penalty is enough," said Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat. "We need to do more for victims. We need to do more for communities.
The audience also heard from several people seeking guidance on how to help loved ones who are incarcerated. Lea Green, president of Maryland CURE, which works to reform the criminal justice system, urged them to unite and look at the big picture.
"We've got to make this journey bigger than our loved one," said Green, whose son is serving a life sentence. "Let's come together, connect these dots."
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