Opinion: If Society Values Redemption, Then Changes to Sentencing Rule Are Necessary

Redemption
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Opportunity for parole should be based on two factors: meeting terms of punishment and rehabilitation.

The Court of Appeals is considering amending Maryland Rule 4-345 to provide a reasonable path to release for those who were convicted of crimes committed when they were younger than 25, when science tells us they had not reached the level of culpability that we ascribe to adult decision-making.

To be eligible, the offenders must have served the greater of 15 years or 60% of their aggregate sentence, or 24 years of a life sentence, or be 60 and have served at least 15 years of their aggregate sentence.

The amendment to Rule 4-345 changes a provision in the rule that limits a court’s ability to revise a sentence provided a motion to revise had been within 90 days of the imposition of the sentence and the court acts on the motion within five years. In proposing to change this strict limitation, the Rules Committee noted that it “has become aware of a national movement to permit trial courts in criminal cases to retain the power to revise long prison sentences imposed on persons (1) who were juveniles, or under 25, when they committed the crime(s) … or (2) who have served a significant part of their sentence and reached a certain age …”

Under Maryland law, a life sentence which does not specify “without parole” means that the person is eligible for parole after 15 years, minus good time credits, if they can demonstrate rehabilitation.

The unfortunate reality is that, under the current parole regime, incarcerated people with excellent records who have served 20, 30, 40 or 50 years cannot gain release. The proposed amendments to Maryland Rule 4-345 will create a meaningful opportunity for release for those who have earned it.

When the state steps in to address crime, it must balance a measured response to the harm to the victim and his or her family, the harm to the community, and the state’s responsibility to mete out a just punishment that is constructive.

Constructive means that a reasonable price is paid for the harm and that the person is rehabilitated in order to be returned to the community. Yet, we have embraced harsher and harsher sentences despite evidence the lengthy sentences have an inverse impact on community safety.

Constructive punishment does not diminish the harm done to the victim and the victim’s family.

If a life was taken or serious injury inflicted, nothing can account for that pain. Society’s role is to recognize that loss in sentencing and to anticipate the perpetrator’s return to society.

Rule 4.1 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, puts it this way, “The purpose of a sentence … is to protect society against crime and to ensure … reintegration of such persons into society upon release so that they can lead a law-abiding and self-supporting life.”

The proposed rule changes have been critiqued as dragging victims back into court for resentencing, causing unnecessary pain.

The truth is that victims have had their say at sentencing, where judges pay serious attention to the pain expressed and the victim needs. The rule changes look to people who have served long sentences for what they did, exceeding the parole eligible time for the sentences served.

While the rule change again provides an opportunity for victim input, to ask the victim or family how they feel decades after the crime is asking more about their healing process than about the punishment handed down and rehabilitation.

Unless the victim or family has a credible fear of future harm, there is little they can add to assessment of release after the sentence contemplated is served.

The Mandela Rules also speak against discrimination, including on the basis of race.

All too often, when the vision of who should never be let out of prison rises in this country, the person is Black and even more often male. There is little sense that Black people in the criminal system can ever be redeemed because their humanity was undervalued before they entered it.

In Maryland, 72% of the prison population is Black, while only 31% of the overall population is Black. If you think that is somehow justified, then you need to ask yourself what vision you are holding.

The proposed changes to Maryland Rule 4-345 are a necessary step in recognizing that it is cruel and unjustified to deny release to those who have done everything in their power to account for and rehabilitate themselves.

—MARGARET MARTIN BARRY

The writer is a member of the Montgomery County Women’s Democratic Club. She directs the Re-Entry Clinic at American University Washington College of Law.