Too Many Juveniles Sentenced To Life

August 09, 2009|By DAN RODRICKS

Gov. Martin O'Malley is obviously reluctant to risk his political future by commuting the sentence of anyone serving a life term in a Maryland prison. But he ought to look at the case of Mark Farley Grant. He ought to seriously consider the plea for clemency prepared by the Innocence Project at the University of Maryland School of Law.

I wrote about Mark Grant's case last week, but the governor hasn't said a word. I'm going to have to keep writing about it until he does.

That's because if he would take the time to read the report - it was submitted to his office and to the Maryland Parole Commission more than a year ago - Mr. O'Malley might order Mark Grant released from MCI-Hagerstown tomorrow.

Mr. O'Malley would read details about Mark Grant's disturbing childhood - the alcoholic and drug-abusing adults who beat him and his siblings; the mother who scrubbed him with a wire brush and placed him in a steaming bathtub; the father who was hardly ever present, and abusive when he was; his mother's boyfriend, who also hit him; the drug-addicted older brother who should have been a role model but went to prison instead; the older men from his neighborhood who introduced him to marijuana and alcohol at the age of 10; his first arrest at 12.

In early 1984, when he was 14, a jury convicted Mark Grant of fatally shooting another teenage boy, Michael Gough, during a botched street robbery in West Baltimore one year earlier.

But if he reads the report, the governor would see that witnesses lied, one to avoid having his family harmed. He would see an affidavit from a former assistant state's attorney - someone Mr. O'Malley might have known from his days as a prosecutor in Baltimore - who says he never would have proceeded with the case had he known what he does about it now.

Clearly, Mark Grant does not belong in prison; he is 41 years old and has been incarcerated since he was 14. All of his time has been served in adult institutions.

Mr. Grant is just one of 6,807 inmates nationwide who are serving life terms for crimes they committed as juveniles. There are 269 such inmates in Maryland prisons and 226 of them, like Mark Grant, are black.

That's according to a new report from the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group that publishes data on the consequences of - and disparities in - sentencing policies.

The Sentencing Project says the number of people of all ages serving life sentences in state and federal prisons has grown significantly in recent years, to more than 140,000 - about 1 in 11. In Maryland the rate is about 1 in 10, and few, if any, lifers have a chance at parole here.

That's because of a policy that has been in place since Parris Glendening was governor. In 1995, Mr. Glendening vowed no breaks for lifers except for the old or dying. Like many Democrats who were concerned that they were seen as soft on crime, Mr. Glendening did this to score political points; few lifers were getting out of Maryland prisons at the time, and those who did had to have perfect behavior records.

But what hath Mr. Glendening wrought? There were 1,756 lifers in Maryland prisons when he announced his get-tough policy; there are more than 2,300 now. Mr. O'Malley embraces Mr. Glendening's prohibition; he doesn't even appear to be looking in the direction of clemency requests, least of all from lifers.

Without question, there are killers and rapists who deserve to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Do the crime, do the time.

But there's no discretion in the "life-is-life" system that is Mr. Glendening's legacy, and that's most troubling in the matter of those 269 lifers who committed their crimes when they were kids. This is what a civilized society does with some of its most troubled and violent children: We send boys to get life lessons among killers and rapists. We declare them lost causes before they're old enough to drive and offer no hope for release should they behave as they grow up behind the walls.

Imposing life without parole on them - either directly or de facto - and putting them in adult prisons is cruel and unusual. And, in the matter of Mark Farley Grant, it's something far worse.

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