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Adult ‘juvenile lifers’ pose little threat to society and should be released from prison to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 | COMMENTARY

Adult prisoners who committed crimes while children and pose little threat to society should be released to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Adult prisoners who committed crimes while children and pose little threat to society should be released to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. (LM Otero/AP)

As local, state and national leaders grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been heightened attention to the risks that the virus poses for the incarcerated population. As experts have detailed, jails, prisons and detention centers are prime breeding grounds for communicable diseases. In response, stakeholders have stressed the urgency of releasing inmates and a number of jurisdictions across the country have begun to take action.

For the most part, the advocacy and action have prioritized the release of nonviolent offenders and elderly inmates. One question that has largely been ignored is whether officials ought to consider similar measures for individuals who committed violent offenses decades ago — when they were children — and who would pose no risk to public safety if they were released from prison today.

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As student attorneys in the Youth, Education & Justice Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, we represent such clients, known as “juvenile lifers.” They, and others similarly situated, have grown up and grown old in prison. They are husbands, fathers and even grandfathers.

In the years since our clients began their sentences, science has shown that adults and children are inherently different with regard to their choices and culpability. Because the parts of our brains that are responsible for rational thinking and deliberation are not fully developed until we reach 25 years of age, children are susceptible to peer pressure and negative influences, act impulsively, and do not understand the long-term consequences of their actions.

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Relying on this brain science, the United States Supreme Court has held that children cannot be punished the same as adults. Unlike adults, children cannot be sentenced to death and, generally, cannot be sentenced to life without parole. The court has explained that children have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”

Indeed, individuals like our clients have changed completely over their decades of incarceration. They have long earned the opportunity to live life outside of prison. They have completed college, mentored youth, held jobs with great responsibility, helped to raise families and been sources of strength and support for those inside and outside of prison. They have rehabilitated and transformed.

COVID-19 is a harsh reminder that prison and jails are crowded with individuals who long ago deserved to be released. The recent efforts to release elderly inmates and nonviolent offenders recognize this reality. However, these efforts need to be expanded to include individuals who have served decades for crimes they committed as children and who, through their efforts, achievement, and personal growth, deserve to be released.

In discussing the impact of COVID-19 on our incarcerated population, Gov. Larry Hogan stated that inmates are “safer where they are.” This is not so. Not only are communicable diseases rampant in prisons, but many incarcerated individuals suffer from preexisting conditions that make them particularly susceptible to suffering from the virus. Health experts have explained that those with acute infections will be transported to area hospitals to receive treatment, putting further pressure on overburdened health care systems that have become a more precious commodity for all. Thus, to protect inmates, correctional officers and the public, officials must reduce the inmate population.

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The benefits of including juvenile lifers in these efforts are obvious. First, consistent with brain science, many have rehabilitated and reformed over their decades of incarceration. Second, they do not pose a threat to public safety. Studies show that criminal activity correlates with age, peaking in late adolescence or early adulthood and decreasing as a person ages. Third, broadening the categories of individuals to consider for release would ease the burden on corrections officials to minimize the impact of the virus. Fourth, the significant financial costs of housing inmates could be reallocated elsewhere. Fifth, reducing the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons would benefit us all by not exacerbating the already significant strain on hospitals and health care workers.

California has taken some right steps in this regard. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently commuted the sentences of more than a dozen individuals who were convicted of violent offenses, including murder. These commutations should serve as a reminder to us all to act with compassion and respect for science, especially in light of COVID-19. Considering juvenile lifers for release is not just a matter of justice, but also of public safety. Indeed, the science tells us as much.

Nina E. Marks (nmarks@clinic.law.umaryland.edu) and Brandon K. Wharton (bwharton@clinic.law.umaryland.edu) are second-year law students at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

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