Maryland’s highest court punted on a rule change that could have offered inmates who were sentenced to prison before turning 25 a chance to get sentence reductions, with many justices saying state lawmakers are better positioned to enact such a sweeping change.
Judges on the Court of Appeals chose not to vote on a proposal to give those inmates who have served at least 15 years of their original sentence, or 60%, whichever is greater, the option to petition a court for a reduced sentence. Their decision came during a Thursday hearing in which the justices heard from experts and advocates arguing for and against the proposal.
The rule, proposed earlier this year by the court’s Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, also would have offered inmates aged 60 or older who have served at least 15 years of their original sentences the option to petition for relief.
During Thursday’s hearing, some judges said that change might be better left to Maryland’s legislative body.
“I think the deliberative forum of the General Assembly is a much better process in working out the details with some of the problems we had today,” Judge Joseph Getty said.
While supporters of the rule change argued that studies show people’s brains are not fully developed until they’re 25 years old and that older inmates are less likely to reoffend once released, the judges said the proposed rule left many unanswered questions about the procedure.
“I think some of the reluctance of the court is not having additional information ... concerning the brain science [and] concerning some of the decisions we have to make to implement a rule,” Getty said.
The rules committee’s chairman, retired Court of Appeals Judge Alan Wilner, had argued that the judiciary did not need legislative approval to implement such a change and that it would target populations that have become the focus on sentence reform efforts in recent years.
If adopted, the move would have gone beyond the Juvenile Restoration Act passed earlier this year that outlined the age limits and prison length requirements for those seeking sentence relief. Both chambers of the General Assembly overrode Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the legislation.
The law gives inmates who were sentenced to longer than 20 years in prison for crimes they committed prior to turning 18 an opportunity to file for a sentence reduction. It also prohibits judges from sentencing minors to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
For those who’ve been sentenced before turning 25, some scientific studies have found that a person’s prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until that age. That part of the brain controls executive function and rational reasoning and studies have found it doesn’t develop until later in life, which has led some groups to argue that young adults and teenagers who commit violent acts do so without a full comprehension of the consequences.
During Tuesday’s hearing, former inmates and their families said the proposed rule change would give scores of rehabilitated prisoners a second chance at becoming contributing members of their communities.
Alonzo Turner-Bey, served more than 31 years after being convicted of murdering a man in Prince George’s County in 1989 when he was 17 years old. He said that in prison he met several inmates who struggled with addiction after serving in various wars who’d be prime candidates for release under the proposed rule change.
“This is not a guarantee, it’s only an opportunity,” Turner-Bey said. “I beg of you, give these men, give these women the opportunity to prove that they’re not the worst of what society says of them.”
Margaret Barry, director of the Re-Entry Clinic at American University Washington College of Law, said the state needs to recognize that prison is supposed to play a rehabilitative role in society.
“We need to let them demonstrate that they have met the expectations for re-entry and then hear them,” Barry said. “When we turn a deaf ear to that, we’re failing as a community in our responsibility on that level.”
At Thursday’s hearing, the judges also heard from opponents who argued that the proposed rule would create thousands of new court motions and hearings during a time when courts already face steep backlogs caused by closures during the coronavirus pandemic.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat, argued against the change, saying that there are currently more than 3,000 inmates who were sentenced under the age of 25.
He also asserted that the change could allow certain inmates to “double dip” on their motions for sentence revisions as those sentenced as minors also seek to take advantage of the relief offered by the new Juvenile Restoration Act.
Shellenberger argued that those who meet the law’s criteria could file another motion for sentence reconsideration under the judicial rule as well if their first attempt was unsuccessful.
“It’s not right,” Shellenberger said. “There needs to be finality.”
John Cox, who serves as deputy state’s attorney under Shellenberger, also argued that the rule as written would require judges to grant a hearing to anyone who files for a sentence modification if they contend they have a drug or alcohol dependency.
“Every time somebody files a motion with a judge, any time they are incarcerated, and [say] ‘I have an alcohol or drug dependency, please modify my sentence,’ that judge has to have a hearing,” Cox said. “And as soon as that motion is denied at the hearing, they can file another one.”
By the end of the meeting, Judge Shirley Watts suggested tabling the measure and not bringing it to a vote, which saw wide support among the other members of the court. Several voiced their support for the rule change’s intent, but not its language.
“With the backlog the jurisdictions have because of the COVID shutdown, I doubt that the courts can even handle the motions that are going to be filed under the statute in the coming year,” Watts said.
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“There are many competing interests and factors that I feel are best resolved in the legislative forum and not by the court,” said Judge Michele Hotten.
Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera agreed, saying that it was “fairly evident that the court is not prepared to solve all of the problems” before allowing the meeting to end without a vote on the measure.
Whether the measure could pass as legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session remains to be seen.
Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican, said he would not support legislation to make changes the justices did not act upon.
West was one of the sponsors of this year’s bill benefiting inmates sentenced before turning 18, and was the lone Senate Republican to vote in favor of overriding Hogan’s veto.
However, he said does not agree with expanding it to older inmates, or the contention that rational reasoning could be seen as still developing until the age of 25.
“There’s a huge difference between committing a crime as a juvenile and committing a crime as an adult,” he said.