No juvenile lifers

November 27, 2005

While Maryland's children are not considered responsible enough to buy cigarettes, vote, or sign an apartment lease, they can be sentenced to live until their dying day in prison. Legislators and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich must cooperate to repeal this illogical, unforgiving section of the legal system.

The argument against kids' driving, smoking, signing leases and the like is that they are not mature enough or competent enough to decide such matters on their own. The argument for throwing them away - into adult prison to serve a mandatory life sentence - is the opposite, that they do know what they are doing. Society can't have it both ways.

Science, in the form of reams of physical and psychological studies, finds that children are child-like. Youngsters' brains fire up in different places than adults' do when they consider questions and make decisions, according to studies done at the University of Pittsburgh and elsewhere. People don't have solid reasoning abilities until late in adolescence, which in some cases can be as late as their twenties. They are still learning impulse control, rational behavior, empathy. Current state law, though, assumes that children are miniature adults when it comes to permanently losing their right to freedom. That law should be abolished; no one 17 or younger at the time of their crime should be sentenced to life without parole.

FOR THE RECORD - An editorial Nov. 27 incorrectly reported the status of Karen L. Fried. Ms. Fried, whose life sentence was commuted in 2003, was paroled in 2004. The Sun regrets the error.

Maryland's dozen such lifers are among more than 2,200 people nationwide spending life behind bars for crimes committed when they were juveniles. Some have been locked up since they were 14. One-third of all of them were sentenced to life in prison without parole because they were convicted of being present at a killing, not of pulling the trigger, according to reporting by nonprofit rights watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. For a slight majority, the conviction for which they earned a life sentence was their first ever, juvenile or adult. And the vast majority of "juvenile" lifers are African American, suggesting there may be an imbalance in sentencing.

That is not to suggest that children don't commit horrible crimes; some do, and they must face severe consequences. But the most extreme adult punishment doesn't fit. Life without parole doesn't acknowledge that many kids can turn their lives around - and that all should be allowed a chance at rehabilitation.

Legislators must outlaw this Draconian option, and Gov. Ehrlich should commute the existing mandatory life sentences to life with the possibility of parole. He has done so already in one case: Karen Lynn Fried, sentenced to life without parole in connection with the 1978 murder of a 13-year-old when Fried was 17. She is now awaiting her first parole hearing; whether she is granted it is up to the Parole Board.

That makes sense. There's a reason a separate justice system was established for juvenile offenders, and though the offenses may have changed, the reason hasn't. If that system in Maryland is flawed, it should be fixed - not bypassed.

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