Maryland General Assembly considers a bill to end life sentences for juveniles

A bill that would end life sentences in prison for juveniles is making its way through the Maryland House and Senate.

The Juvenile Restoration Act would end life sentences without parole for children under 18 who’ve committed violent crimes. It would also make anyone currently serving a life sentence for more than 20 years eligible for a resentencing from a judge, where they will have to prove they’ve turned their life around.

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"It is not about condemnation. But it’s really about fairness and the opportunity to pursue justice at every stage of the process including post-conviction and post-sentencing. There’s still opportunities for justice to prevail," said Aisha Braveboy, State Attorney for Prince George’s County.

State Attorney Braveboy has been advocating for juvenile sentencing reform for years. Braveboy has already gotten nine people sentenced to life as juveniles released from prison and she’s currently working on dozens of more cases.

"The effects of this sentencing is a loss of hope. It’s the loss of a future," Braveboy said.

Braveboy said that studies show juveniles' brains aren’t fully developed and they often act impulsively.

"A lot of people change dramatically when they are in jail. This is an opportunity for real redemption for these juvenile offenders."

Alonzo Turner-Bey is one of the offenders Braveboy helped. He got emotional when recalling the day a judge released him from his sentence early.

"He said after 31 years it’s time for this man to be released," Turney-Bey recalled while holding back tears.

Turner-Bey knows exactly how long he spent in prison.

"31 years, 6 months, 15 days and 5 hours," he said.

He was sentenced to life plus five years in prison at 17 years old for a homicide he committed in 1989. Turner-Bey said, while in prison he turned to his faith and focused on education to better himself. He believes no child should be deprived of hope with a life sentence.

"We did things that we shouldn’t have. All of us have. But let us do our time. We have no problem with that. But to send us to prison forever, it’s unfair, it’s unconstitutional and it’s inhumane," he said.

According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a study done by Montclair University shows the rate of people released early from juvenile life sentences becoming repeat offenders, is just over one percent.

"What we know is that children are the most vulnerable members of our society and they’re also our most valuable resource for building our future. They are less culpable than adults and they are more amenable to rehabilitation," Preston Shipp, Senior Policy Counsel for CFSY said.

CFSY says juvenile life sentencing is also a race issue. According to their numbers, of the 415 people in Maryland who would be immediately eligible for judicial review under the Juvenile Restoration Act, 87% are black. Only 30% of Marylanders identify as black.

"It is imperative that Maryland pass the Juvenile Restoration Act as a matter of racial justice. Otherwise, people are going to continue to languish in prison just because they are black," Shipp said.

If passed, Maryland would become the 25th state to ban juvenile life sentences. Virginia and D.C. already have legislation in place and CFSY says the results are promising.

"These people are doing exactly what we want them to do. They’re getting jobs, they’re having families, they’re mentoring youth, they’re succeeding in every way all over the country," Shipp said.

Turner-Bey says he’s grateful for the second chance and determined to pay it forward.

"I would like to work with the youth in the community because I believe in order to save our youth, some of the people who’ve been through what I’ve been through, who’ve been through the system have to be there to talk to them," Turner-Bey said. "I don’t want to see no more [sic] children go through what I went through, what some of my friends are still going through.

However, many family members of victims feel the legislation takes away their loved one’s justice. In a statement the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers wrote, "In the national debate surrounding the sentencing of juvenile criminals, victims are forgotten. The focus is on the offenders even though they are the ones who chose to place themselves in the positions they are in by committing crimes. The victims did not choose their situations. They truly are the most vulnerable and voiceless people in the criminal justice system. "

NOVJM adds the argument of second chances for offenders is unfair, especially when victims of crimes like murder, don’t have a second chance. 

"Proponents of the Juvenile Restoration Act talk about "second chances" and hope and futures. But lost in all this mantra are the victims. Murder victims are denied hope and futures. They don’t get second chances. Many murder victims’ families feel it is unfair for the killers to be released and will try to prevent release by speaking up at hearings," NOVJM added.

A hearing on the Juvenile Restoration Act is scheduled for Wednesday, February 17 in the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.