A chance encounter nearly eight years ago changed my thinking about how the criminal justice system in Prince George’s County should treat people sent to prison as children.
At a community meeting I convened as a Maryland State Delegate, I had the pleasure of meeting Eddie Ellis, a Maryland man who was sent to prison as a 16-year-old. As I listened to Eddie speak about his 15 years in prison, the way he had changed, and his efforts now to provide for his family and give back to his community, I realized his story was not unique and that we are denying an opportunity for redemption to others like him who are now far removed from the offenses they committed before even reaching adulthood.
It is a lesson that has been endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Recognizing that youthful offenders are fundamentally different from adult ones, the justices have increasingly held that youth who commit serious crimes must be given an opportunity to show that they have changed and grown as their brains and character have developed.
This past year, I was proud to launch a Conviction and Sentencing Integrity Unit in Prince George’s County, the first of its kind in Maryland, to review cases where there are reasons to question the necessity for continued incarceration for individuals who committed their crimes long in the past, while they were still functionally children.
I believed it was important to give people like Eddie a fair chance at life outside of prison. But I have learned that it is often not easy. There are few legal mechanisms in place to grant worthy individuals a chance for even a hearing.
That’s why I am supporting the Juvenile Restoration Act, House Bill 409, introduced by Del. Jazz Lewis and Sen. Christopher West. This important piece of legislation will create the opportunity for judicial review for people sent to prison as children after they have served at least 20 years.
There is a bipartisan trend among Maryland’s neighbors — and around the country — to ensure that no child is sentenced to life in prison without possibility of release. Earlier this year, Virginia passed a bill granting release eligibility after 20 years in prison for people who committed crimes when they were under the age of 18. With support of organizations like the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, where Eddie, the same man who inspired me years ago, now works, the District of Columbia passed the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act in 2016 leading to the release of 55 individuals who have been able to reconnect with their communities. West Virginia is also a member of this group, guaranteeing parole eligibility to all children after 15 years in prison. Similar measures have been adopted in 21 additional states, both red and blue states.
The Juvenile Restoration Act is backed by strong scientific evidence that children are developmentally different from adults. Decision-making and impulse control continue to develop well into a person’s 20s, and studies demonstrate that the vast majority of children age-out of criminal behavior.
Maryland is in need of criminal justice reform in many areas to address the inequity, irrationality and racial injustice in our legal system. Our treatment of youthful offenders is an important part of that process.
None of this is to say that children who commit harm should not be held accountable for their acts. Or that they should be guaranteed automatic release from prison. Rather, the Juvenile Restoration Act provides a clear and transparent opportunity for a second look at long sentences being served by people who are decades removed from the teenagers they were when initially incarcerated.
Under the proposed legislation, sentence reductions are only possible after a court considers: the nature of the crime and the individual’s role in it, whether the individual has demonstrated rehabilitation, statements from victims or victim representatives, and whether behavioral evaluations show that the individual is not a danger to the public.
In Prince George’s County, using a variety of approaches, our Conviction and Sentencing Integrity Unit has helped secure a change in sentence or release for more than nine individuals convicted as children. These now-adult men and women are beginning to live meaningful and productive lives.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are more than 50 individuals convicted as youth in Prince George’s County that have served 20 years or more in prison. Without an opportunity for a second look like that offered by the Juvenile Restoration Act, they remain languishing in prison.
The time has come for Maryland to join our neighbors and states around the nation in passing legislation recognizing scientific differences between children and adults and providing a fair chance for those serving long prison sentences to demonstrate that they are capable of redemption. I urge Maryland legislators to pass the Juvenile Restoration Act and bring Maryland in line with the rest of the country.
Aisha N. Braveboy (email@example.com) is the elected state’s attorney for Prince George’s County.