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Maryland senators vote to end life without parole for juveniles

Maryland lawmakers are weighing several significant changes in how courts handle teenagers and children accused of crimes, including potentially abolishing sentences of life without parole for those convicted of murder or rape.

An end to life without parole sentences for crimes committed by juveniles is among the provisions in a bipartisan bill that easily passed the state Senate late Thursday after an emotional debate.

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Maryland law currently allows life without parole for first-degree murder and, under certain circumstances, for first-degree rape. Supporters of the bill to bar such sentences for juveniles — sponsored by Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican — argued the change would give prisoners a chance to show they’ve changed in the decades since committing terrible crimes.

No one would be guaranteed to walk out of prison, supporters say. Inmates would need to convince a judge that they no longer pose a threat to the public and that their release would be in “the interests of justice.”

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They argued teens — even those who commit horrific acts — can mature dramatically as they approach middle age, receive treatment for mental illness or recover from childhoods sometimes marked by abuse, trauma and deprivation.

“The fundamental question about this bill is whether you believe in the redemptive quality of the human condition,” said Sen. William Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, who backed the bill. Smith said there are currently 47 inmates in Maryland serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles.

A handful of opponents, most of them Republicans, argued that some horrific murders demand lifelong punishment, regardless of the killer’s age at the time. They read graphic accounts of grisly killings committed by Maryland teenagers.

“In some cases, the evil is so outrageous ... that we just cannot let our human desire for redemption overcome our obligations to greater society,” said Sen. Robert Cassilly, a Harford County Republican.

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The bill would also waive mandatory minimum prison sentences for juveniles charged as adults. That would give judges freedom to levy lesser penalties for young defendants than state law normally allows. The legislation would also allow prisoners already serving life without parole sentences to petition a judge for the possibility of release after spending at least 20 years behind bars.

A separate piece of legislation sailed through the House of Delegates to limit children under 13 being charged criminally to a handful of specific, serious offenses; keep more nonviolent felony cases in juvenile court rather than sending children’s cases to adult court; curb how often juveniles are locked up in detention, and add new limits to the length of probation sentences imposed by juvenile court judges. Delegates backed that bill — sponsored by Baltimore Democrat Luke Clippinger — 94-42.

Both bills now move to the other chamber.

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