Dan Rodricks: How long of sentence is enough for men who went to prison as boys?

·5 min read

Question: Assuming we are prohibited from leaving him to die in prison, how long should we make a 16-year-old boy stay behind bars for killing another teenager? Forty years? Fifty?

If a judge gives the boy a life sentence, and he grows up in a Maryland prison and eventually qualifies for parole, how much time should we give him to live as a free man after his release? Twenty-five years? Or would 10 be adequate?

I’ll come back to these questions in a minute. First, the case that prompts them.

In 1995, a teenager named Eric Smith, convicted of first-degree murder, stood for sentencing before Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Kenneth L. Johnson. A jury had found the 16-year-old boy guilty of fatally shooting two other teens on bicycles a year earlier in the 2700 block of E. Monument St. Smith was also convicted of wounding a bystander. His alibi defense apparently did not convince the jury that he was in West Baltimore at the time of the East Baltimore shooting.

The judge was unsparing in his remarks and the punishment he imposed. “This young, 16-year-old ninth grade gentleman is nothing more than a young thuggish killer,” Johnson declared. “Now that says nothing about his parents. You can have parents as good as they wish, and you can have a rotten child. This one is a simple thug. And he took lives for no reason whatsoever.”

Johnson gave Smith three consecutive life sentences plus 20 years. That sounds like the judge considered the boy a lost cause — in a case currently before the Supreme Court, the term is “permanently incorrigible” — and a threat to public safety who needed to be in prison for a long time, if not forever.

I bring you this matter today because, 26 years after his arrest for the shootings, Eric Smith has asked me to look at his conviction. He has always claimed his innocence and still insists on it. I have started to look at the case and the evidence the state presented to the jury.

But, for now, I am struck by Smith’s age at the time of the crime and the penalty Johnson felt he deserved.

I am more than ever opposed to life sentences for juveniles. I find such harsh sentencing for boys a cop-out, an easy answer to a complex problem.

That’s not to say juveniles who commit violent crimes should escape punishment. Our society insists on punishment as both a matter of morality and law. It’s a way of exacting revenge and a potential deterrent to other crime.

But, when it comes to juveniles — even those convicted of murder — shouldn’t we try to help them get to a better place?

Are we going to continue to believe that a 16-year-old boy is a lost cause or do we want a system that finds in him the potential to be a better man? We would be better off with a prison system that was still punitive — in that it deprived a guilty person of freedom — but far more holistic, with an emphasis on therapy.

I’ve said it before: We should completely reinvent our corrections system and make its mission the rehabilitation of all inmates, starting with the youngest, and including the toughest ones, those convicted of violent crime.

So back to my questions at the top: How much time in prison is considered enough for a juvenile convicted of murder before we give him a second chance?

The Smith case provides at least one answer.

A few years ago, an attorney for Smith argued that Johnson’s 1995 sentence had been rendered illegal by important Supreme Court decisions. Over the last 15 years, the high court has ruled that the death penalty and mandatory life sentences of juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court — citing the immaturity of teenagers, their underdeveloped sense of responsibility and their susceptibility to peer influence — also put limits on the power of state judges to sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole.

Nancy Forster, an attorney and former Maryland chief public defender, argued in Baltimore Circuit Court that, under state law, Smith was essentially sentenced to life without parole; his three life sentences made his chances for parole unlikely, keeping him behind bars most of his life — therefore, an Eighth Amendment violation.

In November, Judge Philip S. Jackson ruled against Smith, who is now 42, noting that a state corrections official said he would be eligible for parole after 39 years.

That’s 11 years short of a “50-year threshold” identified by the Maryland Court of Appeals as the point where preclusion from parole eligibility essentially amounts to a sentence of life without parole.

“By my calculation,” Jackson wrote in his November opinion, “Smith has at least the opportunity for a parole hearing thirty-nine (39) years into his term of incarceration.”

And then Jackson added this: “If released in 2034, Smith would be approximately 55 years old. According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control statistics, if released in 2034, a (Black) male of Smith’s age would have a life expectancy of about eighty (80) years … meaning that theoretically Smith could enjoy twenty-five (25) years of life outside prison walls. That, to my mind, is not the legal equivalent of a life without parole prison term.”

So waiting 50 years would be too much, but 39 would be about right.

That’s a judge trying to make sense of case law and draw a line. That’s his job.

But I’m at a different job, a different place. I think there’s something profoundly wrong with keeping a teenager in prison for so long before giving him a second chance. There must be a better way to balance punishment with the greater goal of salvaging a life from early ruin.