A Maryland lawmaker who worked with attorneys and politicians across the country to free a Prince George’s County man sentenced as a juvenile to life in prison without parole, vowed Monday to introduce legislation similar to a Colorado law that won Curtis Brooks his freedom a week ago.
“In 26 states and D.C. there is a ban on life in prison without the possibility of parole,” Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George’s) said at Brooks’ welcome home ceremony in Capitol Heights. “We want to do the same thing for Maryland that we did in Colorado.”
Benson, who was Brooks’ elementary school principal, said she plans to introduce legislation in Annapolis that would guarantee resentencing hearings for inmates jailed as juvenile offenders with life sentences.
Brooks, who is now 39, was 15 years old when he was arrested for felony murder in Colorado. While he did not kill the victim, who died from a gunshot wound, the killing took place during the commission of another crime – a carjacking – in which Brooks was a participant along with several other teenage boys. As a result, he was held accountable for the killing, too.
Then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) commuted Brooks’ sentence in December, and he was released from prison on July 1.
Matching the tumultuous weather that filled the skies Monday morning during the celebratory gathering at St. Margaret’s Catholic Church, Benson, the chaplain of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, sent out warning shots to legislative leaders who have blocked similar legislation in the past.
“We must talk to our legislative leaders in Annapolis to inform them that we are not going to be playing around about this legislation,” Benson told supporters.
In Maryland, the state Court of Appeals ruled last year that it is constitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison for certain crimes because of triggers in state law that provide for parole recommendations. Considerations include the demonstration of maturity and the ability to be rehabilitated.
But there are no provisions that guarantee a resentencing hearing, which is what triggered Brooks’ release.
According to Benson, in Maryland, there are 56 individuals who were sentenced as juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole and another 300 who received sentences of 60 years or more.
Benson said she will begin work on the bill with supporters in September. The 2020 legislative session begins Jan. 8.
At the time of the crime, Brooks was homeless. He had left his home in Prince George’s County in 1995 to live with his mother in Colorado. Robin Brooks, then in her 20’s, had just finished a drug rehabilitation program. But two months after his mother took him in, she cast him out on the streets.
“I was homeless at the time before I was arrested,” Brooks said. “I don’t believe all blame can be placed at anybody’s feet.”
Brooks said his mother was struggling with her recovery at the same time he was having difficulty dealing with the circumstances that had led him there. Brooks recalled acting like a victim.
“In that situation, during that night, I had a moment where I had a chance to do the right thing, which at that time would have been to go to a police officer or somebody and put a stop to the situation,” Brooks said Monday. “Unfortunately at the time I was 15 years old living on the streets, so my mentality was to be worried about what the streets thought about me. . . I absolutely blame myself.”
In 1997, at 17, Brooks was sentenced to die in prison. But in 2012, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened up the possibility for freedom, activists began to take action.
In 2012, under the 8th Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to jail a juvenile for life without the possibility of parole. The court cited cruel and unusual punishment in Miller v. Alabama. A later ruling by the same court said the law applies to persons already sentenced.
Benson said she was contacted about the case in January 2013 and that is when she decided to get involved.
“I would be foolish to know this boy was in trouble and not to do something about it,” Benson said. “What he had done while he was incarcerated, he was preparing to come back and he didn’t know it.”
Brooks learned to communicate in some form or another in four languages while he was in prison, got his high school diploma and earned 12 college credits, she said.
Benson, along with her chief of staff, Abdul Raheem Abdullah, used personal finances to travel back and forth to Colorado to advocate to change state law and eventually secure clemency for Brooks. Benson said two bills passed the state legislature in Colorado that enabled Brooks to set up a hearing for his resentencing. Back in Maryland, an advocacy group, The Greater 202 Coalition, worked with Benson, and among other things, raised money for his college courses.
A few days before his scheduled resentencing hearing in December, Brooks was granted clemency by Hickenlooper. Benson credits U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who attended the ceremony at St. Margaret’s Catholic Church, for the connection to the governor.
Brooks will start a job with Benson and Abdullah in August for the Prince George’s County Education Coalition, where he’ll work with parents, students and the community to help engage elementary students.
“They were providing me with a community to return to,” Brooks said. “Complacency is something I don’t believe in.”
Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].