Though I do not usually use another journalistic article as the major part of this column, I am making an exception this time. Allow me to explain why.
Two weeks ago, when I wrote about legislation being considered by the 2021 General Assembly mandating consideration of parole after 20 years for juveniles committed to life sentences, I could not personally vouch for the actual rehabilitation and redemption of a prisoner with little or no hope of release from prison except a natural death. Coincidentally I then read an opinion piece article in the Washington Post written by a person intimately familiar with incarceration.
By the way, Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill. The legislature unsurprisingly overrode the governor’s veto.
Reginald Dwayne Betts, a writer, lawyer and director of the Million Book Project, which supports prison libraries throughout the country, wrote:
“My last year in prison, I had a cell partner everyone called Pops, even by those his age. He carried around a Bible and went to school, still believing a trade and education mattered after two dozen years in prison and a handful of parole denials. One afternoon, I came upon him and a group of other old friends weeping around a table. It scared me. These men had been locked up for decades. I didn’t want to know what could have made them cry in the open.
‘Pops, everything good?’ I asked. He wiped his face, this man who was more than twice my age and could bench press 300 pounds. ‘I made papers,’ he said.
‘Pops was the last person I would see leave prison during my eight years. I cannot believe that what we truly want is for people like Pops to die in prison.”
In his veto message, Gov. Hogan expressed an opinion held by many who question whether prisons do offer sufficient rehabilitation and redemption to justify the release of a person who committed an inexcusable crime.
‘I am also a firm believer in second chances and understand that individuals who commit serious crimes, especially as juveniles, are capable of rehabilitation. Senate Bill 474, however, pertains to juveniles who have committed crimes so heinous that they are automatically charged as adults…
“these are serious crimes that require the most serious of consequences, which is why a judge or jury sentences the individual to a lengthy determinate sentence, life imprisonment or life imprisonment without parole.”
In his message, Hogan also cited the additional hurt inflicted on victims’ families still traumatized by the death or maiming of a loved one during the commission of a senseless crime.
As I previously wrote, I well understand the need to punish a person who unnecessarily took another person’s life, or committed an act so vicious the victim and family are still suffering the effects. I also believe that if a prisoner has led a flawless life during incarceration, as judged by the parole board, and somehow been forgiven by the victim’s family, then that person deserves to be paroled.
Parole for a life sentence is a subject fraught with emotion, including long-term condemnation of the felon. Forgiveness of a crime against another human being takes immense faith in a person’s ability to commit to a crime-free life in civil society and irrefutable personal redemption.
Maybe the time has come to reexamine a life sentence devoid of hope.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.