The Terrence Johnson Dilemma

March 31, 1994

What purpose is served by keeping Terrence Johnson behind bars any longer?

That question begs an answer as an Anne Arundel County judge is asked to overrule the state parole board and grant Johnson his freedom.

Johnson was only 15 years old when he was convicted of manslaughter after killing two Prince George's policemen in TC police station interrogation room. He claims he acted in self-defense after being brutalized by members of a police force that had a reputation for hostility toward minorities, but there is no way to know what really happened.

What we do know is that today, at 31 and having served 16 years of his 25-year sentence, Johnson is as good an example of rehabilitation as one is likely to find.

While in prison he has earned his general equivalency diploma, graduated summa cum laude from Morgan State University and founded a prison inmate advisory board. While no one can predict the future, Johnson probably no longer poses a danger to society. He has served his entire 10-year manslaughter sentence and six of 15 years for a handgun violation -- more than most inmates convicted of the same charges and with less favorable prison records. Yet parole boards, pressured by police, have on four different occasions denied him early release.

Parole is not a right, and there is no injustice in requiring someone sentenced to 25 years to serve 25 years. Still, in Johnson's case the question must be asked: Why keep him in jail? To send a message, some will say. To let people know that anyone who kills a police officer will pay dearly. And so they should. While certain lives should not be worth more than others, our society does treat the killing of police -- the ultimate barrier between us and anarchy -- as especially serious.

But while Johnson has not paid as much as the victims' families would like, he has paid dearly. It is not his fault that a jury convicted him of manslaughter instead of murder. He has spent his entire adult life in prison and done everything the system asked of him. The only reason to leave him in jail for four more years (he cut five years off his term through good behavior) is retribution. It is difficult to blame the victims for wanting that, but it is not the justice system's job to satisfy their quest for revenge.

Society has nothing more to gain by keeping Terrence Johnson locked up. There are better uses for his jail cell than keeping him in it.

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