Maryland’s highest court is considering whether to allow anyone sentenced to prison before turning 25 to seek new sentences after serving at least 15 years behind bars — no matter what the crime or how long ago they had been convicted.
The change, if approved, would alter longstanding judicial rules that require defendants to seek relief within 90 days of sentencing and for judges to act upon those motions within five years, and mandates that the person has served at least 15 years or 60% of the original sentence, whichever is greater.
The potential Court of Appeals changes would also provide similar relief for inmates aged 60 or older who have served at least 15 years of their original sentences. Research shows that older inmates are less likely to reoffend once released, supporters said.
The proposal, which does not need legislative approval, follows a chorus of calls by advocates and some prosecutors who say states need to offer more options to those seeking relief from lengthy sentences.
Alan Wilner, a retired Court of Appeals judge who chairs the court’s Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, said the body proposed the rule because some scientific studies have found that a person’s prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until around the age of 25. That part of the brain is responsible for executive function and rational reasoning and its late development is the reason some argue that young adults and teenagers will commit violent acts without a full comprehension of the consequences.
“There is, in other words, a solid, scientific basis for providing the opportunity for judicial relief for those two populations by eliminating the arbitrary ... impediments to that relief,” Wilner said.
He also said that Senate Bill 494, legislation passed during the 2021 General Assembly session that eliminated sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, does “absolutely nothing for the aging population” of inmates.
The current limitation was put into effect by former Chief Judge Robert Bell in 2004 amid public outcry over the reduction of sentences of several people convicted of violent crimes in the years preceding.
While the Court of Appeals did not vote this week and sent it back to the rules committee for further review, there was considerable debate over the proposal and how it would align with the reform legislation passed this year.
The rules and procedures committee will convene again Thursday.
Brian Saccenti, director of the Public Defender’s Office’s Decarceration Initiative, said that the rule change would also reflect studies in Maryland that found that, of nearly 200 older prisoners released in 2012 due to a Court of Appeals ruling, only one was arrested again after release.
“We know that, after decades behind bars, the vast majority of people turn their lives around,” he said. “The hopes of hundreds of families rest on what this court does.”
Wilner added that the rule changes would also address long-standing racial disparities in Maryland’s prisons, where Black people are the majority of inmates despite only representing about 31.1% of the state’s overall population. He said that of the people eligible to file a motion under the rule change, 71.4% were Black.
But others argued changing the rules would force the victims of violent crimes and their families to live through countless court proceedings and relive the trauma.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat, used the example of former county police Officer Amy Caprio, who died after she was run over by a stolen Jeep Wrangler driven by 17-year-old Dawnta Harris in May 2018.
While Harris was the driver of the vehicle, he was there with three friends, all under 25, who were burglarizing homes in Perry Hall; all pleaded guilty to felony murder. While they didn’t drive the car, Maryland law allowed them to be charged with felony murder because the killing occurred during the commission of a felony, the burglaries.
He said that, through a combination of parole and sentence modification hearings, there could be as many as 22 hearings over the course of 12 years from 2033 through 2045 if the four defendants sought relief through those various mechanisms.
“That is not how victims’ families should be treated in the state of Maryland,” Shellenberger said.
Daniello Lacey, the mother of Cody Lacey, who was fatally shot at a party in St. Mary’s County in 2015, said the proposal is a disservice to crime victims’ families.
Alan Rangel, 21, of Lexington Park, was sentenced to 90 years in prison after being found guilty of murdering Cody Lacey. In addition, Wade Joshua Braithwaite, 23, pleaded guilty to a weapons offense and sentenced to 15 years in prison related to the shooting, according to local media outlets.
Lacey said the two had long rap sheets that dated back to when they were minors and that neither had been successfully rehabilitated in various correctional facilities prior to the shooting.
“These young men, they started at such a young age. They’ve been through so many correctional camps,” she said. “They don’t deserve to be out. Us as [taxpaying] citizens are paying for them to be there.”
Doyle Niemann, an assistant state’s attorney from Prince George’s County, spoke in favor of the proposal and on behalf of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy.
The two Democratic prosecutors have already created programs to review sentences handed down to minors as well as cases of people older than 60 who’ve served at least 25 years in prison on a life sentence.
Niemann said the two jurisdictions “represent probably three-quarters of the people affected by this proposed rule” and that it “strikes a compromise that makes sense.”
“We have found many good examples, and we have had some success,” Niemann said.
“But they’ve all been through the backdoor,” he said, adding that the proposal puts the issue “squarely in front of the court” rather than in the hands of elected prosecutors.