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It's been nearly four years since the U.S. Supreme Court barred states from mandating terms of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of certain offenses. In that decision, the justices recognized that people whose crimes were committed when they were children should not be subjected to the harshest penalties imposed on adult offenders. Yet Maryland still has hundreds of aging inmates serving life sentences for serious crimes they committed as minors. Many of them are now eligible for parole, but that can't happen unless the state takes meaningful steps to prepare them for that eventuality.

That's why we are encouraged by state Public Safety Secretary Stephen T. Moyer's recent decision to reverse a policy that has held for such inmates for two decades and allow them to be housed in minimum-security and pre-release facilities — a step that eventually could allow them to participate in work-release programs. At a time when the state is trying to re-evaluate its criminal justice system and place a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and re-entry, it should at least consider the possibility of releasing some former juvenile lifers on parole. This new policy doesn't guarantee that will happen, but it creates conditions in which it is at least possible.

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In its 2012 ruling outlawing mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, the Supreme Court cited two earlier decisions based on a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that minors don't have the emotional or intellectual maturity to fully appreciate the consequences of their actions and therefore should not be held to the same moral and legal standards as adults. Citing the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the court outlawed executions of juveniles in 2005, and in 2010 it barred sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of all crimes except homicides.

But none of those decisions required states to adopt policies aimed at preparing inmates for eventual parole or release. In the mid-1990s Maryland juveniles serving parole-eligible life sentences could "demonstrate their rehabilitation by progressing through reduced security levels in the prison system," according to the American Civil Liberties Union. But that program ended after a couple of high-profile escapes and an incident in which a convicted murderer on work release fatally shot a woman and then himself, prompting then-Gov. Parris Glendening to ban parole for anyone serving a life sentence in Maryland.

Those incidents highlighted the risks of releasing adult inmates convicted of serious crimes, but they also had the effect of dampening the state's enthusiasm for giving youthful offenders a meaningful path toward rehabilitation. In general, Maryland recognizes that juvenile offenders should be afforded greater opportunities for education, job training and eventual supervised release that would allow them to work and re-establish ties to their families. But for most of the last 20 years, that promise has been withheld from some.

There's no question that youthful offenders are capable of committing horrendous crimes and that they should be held to account for their actions. The issue is whether the punishment should last for the rest of their lives or whether at some point they should have a chance to demonstrate that they can safely re-enter their communities as productive members of society. By choosing the latter policy, the state has imposed on itself an obligation to set up a process for gauging the risks of allowing inmates to live in lower-level security facilities and participate in work-release programs that prepare them for eventually becoming paroles.

In the real world there's no way to ever entirely eliminate the risk that people convicted of serious crimes in their youth will re-offend. That's also true of inmates as a whole, yet the state manages the release of thousands of ordinary ex-offenders every year. Many of the inmates sentenced to life as juveniles are by now are entering middle age, when the chances any one of them will commit another crime are considerably smaller. People, after all, do change over time, and the state's policy toward inmates who committed serious crimes in their youth needed to change as well to reflect that reality.

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