When it comes to imprisonment for heinous crimes, my philosophy has always tended toward eye-for-an-eye. Take a life for a senseless reason, spend the rest of yours in a prison, unworthy of mingling ever again in normal society.
I never questioned or doubted that philosophy. It seemed logical and sensible. A murderer or rapist gave up his/her right to freedom after the commission of, and sentence for a killing or maiming of a friend or family member or stranger.
I could think of no reason for leniency or sympathy.
Then, advancing age and consequent mellowing intervened. Not entirely, but perhaps my views softened as my thinking allowed the entry of different opinions.
If a woman kills her husband or boyfriend after violent physical abuse, is it fair to sentence the victim of constant beatings to a life sentence? I say not.
If a man kills a domestic intruder to protect his family, he scarcely deserves a life sentence. He might deserve commendation.
I suspect few would disagree with these examples. The legal system enables the use of extenuating circumstances in grievous cases as these.
When the culprit is a juvenile, who has killed a family member or friend or neighbor out of anger or spite or peer pressure, the picture becomes blurry. Life without parole is a death sentence. Hope is not an option. Contrition is meaningless.
As the Maryland General Assembly considers legislation to eliminate life-without-parole for a juvenile, our lawmakers and somewhat skeptical public need to decide whether rehabilitation is a viable concept supported not only by do-gooders–but by those of us who are wavering from complete allegiance to a life-for-a-life philosophy. The proposed bill also enables people sent as children to prison to be considered for judicial review after serving 20 years of their sentence.
If a prison is more than an unforgiving warehouse, a place that redirects and retrains once young and vicious convicts, then parole must be an option. Governors should play no role in approving paroles. Politics should not be a factor; pleasing your political base is unproductive, if not unsavory.
A tough stance by a governor may be ego-satisfying; it accomplishes little else.
While my thinking has changed, my compassion and concern for a family scarred forever by the murder of a loved one are inviolate. Parole boards must continue take into account, when deciding whether to approve parole, the opinions of family members, who by extension became victims of a horrific crime.
Within recent years I read about the quest for an early parole (eventually granted) for the former suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland based on her good behavior and sincere regret. Drunk and talking on her mobile phone, she killed a bicyclist in a hit-and-run in Baltimore. A family lost a husband and a father.
The family was aghast at the attempt to gain an early parole for Bishop Heather Cook. Family members expressed their unrelenting opposition to the parole board, which rejected the initial requests.
Some families, so I understand, can forgive the perpetrator and support release from a life term. Forgiveness by a bereaved family of a criminal charged with the killing of an innocent person would be a leap too far for me.
If, however, after 15 or 20 years, a murderer or rapist is considered rehabilitated according to strict criteria determined by the parole board and judged no longer a menace to society, then parole must be considered on a regular basis for juveniles.
Continued imprisonment otherwise ignores a changed person who may contribute some value to society.
Understandably so, this subject is ripe for emotionally charged opinions. I have offered mine.
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.