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The push to stop putting juveniles away for life

Posted at 10:06 PM, Jan 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-20 18:05:41-05

BALTIMORE — There are a lot of things you can’t do if you are under 18 in the United States.

But in some cases, in some states, you can still get sentenced to life in prison.

For Warren Hynson he found that out when he was only 17.

He still remembers what the judge said to him the day he went away for 28 years.

“He said I can see that you have remorse because the victim's family lost a loved one, but I got news for you," said Hynson. "Your family is losing a loved one also because you’re going to prison for the rest of your natural life. While he was saying it, he was banging his gavel saying the rest of your natural life.”

He was released in 2019, a decision made by the same judge that put him away.

Now he commits his life to painting, guiding, and fighting to change laws so more young people don't go through what he did.

“I know what it’s like to be a juvenile lifer," Hynson said. "I know what it’s like to have felony murder on a murder you didn’t actually commit.”

With the help of celebrities like Alyssa Milano, the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition is fighting to give young people a second chance.

Fatima Razi, the Founder of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition said there is a huge racial disparity in the criminal justice system.

"It’s shameful that Maryland has the largest black prison population in the entire country," Razi said. "82 to 83% of juvenile lifers are African American.”

Erica Suter is Hynson's lawyer and she proudly hangs one of his paintings in her office.

She is a post-conviction and appellate attorney and First Vice President of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorney Association.

“As an attorney, but also as a mother the idea of sending my child adrift in a criminal justice system at 15 or 16 years old to be housed with grown men is horrifying to me," said Suter. "What the Supreme Court Cases indicate is that juveniles are different than adults and they should be treated differently than adults.”

A few years back the Supreme Court ruled that life sentences for juvenile are unconstitutional.

Maryland is one of the only states that still holds juveniles without parole.

Hamza Khan is the Police Lead for the Maryland Judiciary Reform Task Force.

“The Juvenile Restoration Act in many ways would insure people who have gone to prison, and who have suffered more the retributory effects of our criminal justice system, rather than the rehabilitation that it should provide as young people, would get a second chance at life and to offer something to society more than simply being a tax cost.”

Preston Shipp is the Senior Policy Counsel for the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth.

He said there’s a lot of reason young people aren’t as culpable as adults like lack of impulse control, effects of trauma, and peer pressure.

“At the same time, they have profound potential for positive transformation and to move beyond those worst moments that Erica alluded to," Shipp said.

The group said there’s no better time than no to pass laws aimed at reducing the rate of imprisonment.

“COVID-19 is rampant in the prison populations, not just in Maryland, it’s across the United States," said Jayna Peterson, an Intern with the Md. Juvenile Justice Coalition.

There will be a hearing in the Maryland House of Delegates for the Juvenile Restoration Act Thursday at 1:30 p.m.

Here's a few links to Hynson's artwork.

On Wednesday, January 20, the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers released a statement on the matter saying in part that they oppose "over-sentencing" juvenile offenders that are disproportionate to their crimes and recognize that life without parole may sometimes be a disproportionate sentence for juvenile offenders, however they also say some pose a long-term danger.

While many juvenile offenders have the potential for positive change, there are many who are psychopaths. Psychopaths will always pose a danger because there is no cure or treatment for psychopathy. In such cases, life without parole may be necessary to protect the public.

NOVJM believes that each juvenile offender should be sentenced based on their individual characteristics. Advocates of ending life sentences for juveniles argue that they are categorically less culpable due to the “hallmarks of youth”-- impulsivity, susceptibility to peer pressure, etc. However, not all juveniles are the same. Many juvenile criminals do not display any of the “hallmarks of youth.” Rather than being impulsive, they extensively plan out their crimes. And rather than being under peer pressure, they commit their crimes alone. A great example of this is the Donald Torres case from Delaware. Torres broke into the Godt family’s home, spread kerosene around the home, and set it ablaze. He then watched the house burn down with the family inside. The mother, father, three-year-old son, and one-year-old daughter were all killed.

It is nonsensical to say that Torres should not get life without parole because most other juveniles are impulsive and susceptible to peer pressure, even though none of these traits applied to him. We believe that juvenile offenders should be sentenced based on the facts surrounding their specific crimes and not based on the general traits of others in their age group.

Finally, we ask that victims be considered. Murder victims do not get second chances. Many murder victims’ families feel that it is unfair for the killers to be released. They believe that the murderers should not be allowed to enjoy the very freedoms they robbed their loved ones of. To prevent the injustice of an early release, they will fight parole. For these victims, the parole process is incredibly difficult and painful. They suffer nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks. This trauma is intensified when parole hearings are more frequent.

Currently, the national debate regarding life sentences for juveniles is focused on the offenders. Victims are forgotten. We ask that Maryland lawmakers keep us in mind when making decisions that will significantly impact us.