Tensions Flare in Senate Committee Over Juvenile Justice Bill

Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) presented a bill Tuesday that would prohibit judges from sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole.

Iterations of this legislation that would put Maryland in line with U.S. Supreme Court precedent have cycled through the General Assembly for years.

“A growing number of states have reformed their respective laws, eliminating life without parole as a sentencing option for all juveniles tried as adults — not only prospectively, but … retroactively,” Kelley told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Under Maryland law, judges may sentence minors to life without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder and certain first-degree rape convictions.

But since the turn of the century, the Supreme Court has held that sentencing juveniles to death or life without parole is unconstitutional:

  • In the 2005 Roper v. Simmons decision, the court ruled 5-4 that sentencing minors to death constituted cruel and unusual punishment;
  • In the 2010 Graham v. Florida case, by a 6-3 decision, the court determined that it is unconstitutional to sentence juvenile offenders who have not been convicted of murder to life without parole;
  • In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held, by a 5-4 vote, that, for sentencing purposes, youths are different than adults and should not be subject to mandatory life without parole sentences; and
  • In the 2016 Montgomery v. Louisiana case, the court upheld, 6-3, that the ruling in Miller v. Alabama should be applied retroactively.

The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child has also denounced sentencing minors to life without parole possibilities.

According to The Sentencing Project, 31 states and Washington, D.C., have amended their laws to provide mandatory minimums for minors since 2012.

Twenty-six states still allow juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Several opinions in these Supreme Court cases referenced minors’ limited brain development.

In her court opinion for Miller v. Alabama, Justice Elena Kagan wrote:

“We reasoned that those findings—of transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences—both lessened a child’s ‘moral culpability’ and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his ‘deficiencies will be reformed.’”

That was Kelley’s argument, too.

“The lack of fixed character in children in comparison to adults means that childhood offenders are more amenable to rehabilitation and educational services, and have a greater probability to reform,” she said.

Kelley’s bill does not include a retroactivity clause.

Kelley said she is “certainly not against retroactivity of laws on this subject,” but noted that people have worked for years to advance this legislation, so she tried to make it amenable for lawmakers of all perspectives.

“That would be great if that [retroactivity] can happen but, if not, this is a fallback position,” she said.

‘This is just not responsive’

According to Kelley, over 300 people are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole in Maryland prisons.

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services told Maryland Matters that there are 17 juveniles in Maryland sentenced to life without parole.

Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford)

Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford) told Kelley that 300 “seems very high,” and asked whether or not she could “conceive of a crime by a juvenile” that would warrant a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Kelley responded that this legislation doesn’t promise that juvenile offenders will be released — that’s up to the Maryland Parole Commission.

Cassilly disputed the need for more protections for juvenile offenders Tuesday.

Also during the committee’s morning work session on police reform, Cassilly and Senate Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) argued against provisions of a bill that would make some officer misconduct records available to the public.

Hough said that the bill would allow unfounded police misconduct allegations to be published, which could ruin an officer’s reputation and life.

In response to Hough’s comments Tuesday morning, Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) noted that, during a floor debate last week, Republicans complained about legislation to protect juvenile offenders’ arrest and court records from public view until the court determined whether or not they were going to be charged as adults.

“And now some of the arguments that I was making in terms of protecting juveniles, they’re making them in this case,” Sydnor said. “It is striking me in some kind of way.”

On the Senate floor last week, Cassilly argued that shielding juvenile criminal records decreases accountability, further harms victims and could perpetuate school shootings.

“Denying information to the people who need to know it is wrong; it’s very wrong, and too often it’s tragically wrong,” he asserted.

In response to Sydnor’s remarks Tuesday morning, Cassilly replied that youth criminal records are “overwhelmingly” protected.

“So, to sort of suggest that this is on parity with hiding violent 17-year-olds’ attempted murder charges and pillaging of their neighborhoods with the onslaught of crime — to suggest that that’s in any way on par with a request to disclose administrative infractions by a police officer, it’s just not there,” he said.

Later at the bill hearing, Cassilly grew frustrated and began talking over Kelley and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery).

As Kelley began to explain how a child’s neurobiology and the traumatic circumstances they grew up in affect their impulse control, Cassilly interrupted.

“Mr. Chairman, I’m done because clearly, she’s not gonna respond to my question,” he asserted. “I mean, clearly I’m not gonna get an answer, so thank you because this is just not responsive and it’s just going to go on another 10-minutes, so just thank you very much. I appreciate it. Have a nice day.”

Soon it became clear that Cassilly, sponsor of the hearing’s final bill, was no longer participating in the chat.

When Cassilly’s bill was called, Smith chuckled and asked a staffer to contact Cassilly’s office to ask him to appear on camera.

Smith waited about a minute for Cassilly to return to the call.

When he reappeared, he apologized to the chairman.

“Sorry, had to run to the restroom,” he said.

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