Maryland bans life sentences for juvenile offenders

Juveniles in Maryland can no longer be sentenced to life without parole. The Maryland General Assembly passed the Juvenile Restoration Act Saturday after the House overrode Governor Larry Hogan’s veto.

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Under the new bill people sentenced to life without parole as juveniles and have served 20 years or more are eligible to for their sentence to undergo a judiciary view.

State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy has seen success already doing this in Prince George’s County.

"Sentencing someone who is a juvenile to life is considered in many instances, cruel and unusual punishment. The laws have to reflect a level of compassion and understanding and really an opportunity for these individuals, who were juveniles when they committed their offenses, to have an opportunity for restoration," Braveboy said.

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Over the last few years Braveboy has gotten more than 10 people sentenced to life in prison as juveniles released by proving they’ve turned their lives around in prison.

"For the most part they have taken classes, earned their GED, some have taken college credits. Many have gotten a trade so that they can be employable," Braveboy said.

But releasing violent offenders early often causes great pain for victim’s families.

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"I was horrified. I actually ended up going to seek mental health counseling because I feared for my life," Gale Seaton said.

Seaton’s 17 year old daughter, Stacey was murdered in 2005 in Bowie. The person convicted of second degree murder in the case served only 10 years in prison. Seaton says she will never forget the day he was released.

"I still fear for my life. People say ‘he’s not going to kill you.’ I said, ‘oh no I don’t think he would but I think he would beat another small drug addicted person or somebody else," she said.

Seaton says these offenders don’t deserve a second chance.

"You might think it’s unfair but I think it’s unfair that my daughter was murdered. She doesn’t get a second chance," Seaton said.

People who support the bill say brains aren’t fully developed until people are in their twenties and that children often make bad, impulsive decisions.

"Our system of justice requires us to be balanced and to be fair. Because we are required to be balanced and fair we have to take into consideration an individual’s age and their maturity level," Braveboy said.

But Seaton doesn’t agree with that argument.

"I’m tired of hearing they’re ‘children’ at the age of 17. Why are we allowing children to drive? Why are we allowing children to hold full time jobs and go to college at 17? And go into the military at 17 but not hold them accountable?" Seaton said. "Yes people lose control at times. I understand that. And they get themselves into situations. I’m not unsympathetic but if you’re going to go as far as murdering someone and act like an adult then you have to expect to be treated like and adult," she added.

Braveboy makes it clear that these people will still serve a significant amount of time but says they should be allowed to redeem themselves. She says many of the people she released from prison have become positive influences in the community.

"Redemption I believe is real. I’ve seen it and so there has to be room within the criminal justice system for redemption," she said.

According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth the rate of released juveniles becoming repeat offenders is just over 1%. 

Maryland is the 25th state to ban juvenile life sentences without parole.

The passing of this act makes 415 people in the state eligible for sentencing review.

In a statement the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murders said, NOVJM sought to get this legislation amended due to our concerns with the excessive number of hearings it allows for juvenile offenders. The legislation entitles all juvenile offenders to parole eligibility and three judicial reviews… NOVJM simply wanted the bills to be amended so that victims would endure fewer re-traumatizing hearings. That was not done. We don’t understand why Maryland lawmakers were unwilling to limit the amount of revictimization. Maryland lawmakers have placed the freedom of violent felons, such as rapist serial killer Alexander Watson and arsonist murderer Benjamin Garris above the rights of victims."