At 35, Marcus Tunstall has spent more than half his life in prison. It's unlikely he'll ever get out unless a governor intervenes or the law changes. That's because Mr. Tunstall is serving life without parole for a crime he committed while a minor. He is among 15 such men who entered Maryland's prison system under this unforgiving term. Arrested as adolescents, they were too young to join the Army, not old enough to buy liquor and ineligible to vote. And yet the state consigned them to an interminable existence; their prison stay will far exceed their years on the outside. It's a living death that harbors no chance for redemption.
The U.S. is the only country that imprisons juveniles without the possibility of parole. It's a sentence that defies the scientific research on teenagers' reasoning and potential for reform. Some states are finally realizing that and moving to repeal these laws. Maryland, unfortunately, is not among them.
Known as kid-lifers, juvenile offenders imprisoned under mandatory life-without-parole laws number about 2,300 in 39 states, according to a study by Northwestern University Law School's Children and Family Justice Center and the John Howard Association. Despite those staggering figures, only Nebraska, Florida, Michigan, Illinois and California are actively trying to change their laws on kid-lifers. Illinois' law came on the books more than 30 years ago as youth crime was increasing.
Maryland law allowed for a life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile convicted as an adult in 1988, following the Supreme Court's decision to exclude juveniles from the death penalty. Most of Maryland's kid-lifers entered prison at 17 or 16. Marcus Tunstall, convicted in a drug-related robbery and triple murder in Prince George's County, says he was coerced into a confession after being threatened by police. "I've come to realize that THE GOD MOST HIGH has a plan and that when HE wants me out of here I'll be out of here," Mr. Tunstall wrote in a letter from prison.
More likely than not, he'll leave on a funeral director's gurney.