Juvenile Lifers Have Little Shot at Release Despite Court Decision

Monday, April 11, 2016
Credit: Getty Images

By Daniel W. Staples, Courthouse News Service

BALTIMORE – The U.S. Supreme Court may have struck down mandatory life sentences for minors, but a new federal complaint says hundreds of these “juvenile lifers” have received no “meaningful opportunity for release.”

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit Wednesday on behalf of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, a nonprofit prisoners’ rights advocacy organization.

“The ideal outcome would be a change in the policy requirement for the governor’s signature to release those recommended for parole ... which had been the stop gap for these men,” Walter Lomax, the plaintiff initiative’s executive director, said in a phone interview.

“Ideally the system would work as it used to work, when politics were not part of the parole system,” Lomax added.

Having served nearly 40 years in prison on a wrongful conviction before his release in 2006 and exoneration in 2014, Lomax has first-hand knowledge of the Maryland correctional system.

His group’s lawsuit cites recent Supreme Court precedent that barred mandatory sentencing schemes that subject defendants to life in prison without parole, even if the crime was committed as a juvenile.

The 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama rendered such sentences unconstitutional, and Supreme Court applied that holding retroactively in the 2014 case Montgomery v. Louisiana.

Three men convicted of violent crimes they committed as minors joined the Wednesday lawsuit in Maryland.

Though they are all “serving life sentences that are, theoretically, parole-eligible,” the men say this designation is a farce.

“No juvenile lifer has been paroled in Maryland in the last two decades,” the complaint states.

Having each served at least 25 years in prison, the men say they are serving de facto life without parole sentences because of the policies and practices of the governor’s office, the Maryland Parole Commission and the Department of Corrections.

DOC policies deny lifers access to rehabilitative opportunities and services by automatically classifying these offenders as maximum- and medium-security incarceration, according to the complaint.

The DOC has also allegedly adopted policies that bar lifers from eligibility for work release and family leave programs.

“The result is that individuals who are juveniles at the time of their offense, who are more vulnerable and in greater need of supportive programming, are immediately and automatically housed with individuals DOC has deemed the most dangerous, in institutions with the highest security and the least programming,” the complaint states.

Lifers try to demonstrate their rehabilitation by attending school, volunteering and mentoring in various programs and attaining positions of trust and responsibility, but they are still repeatedly denied parole, according to the complaint.

Authority to parole any lifer in Maryland lies exclusively in the hands of the governor, but the plaintiffs say the state still follows tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s.

Recommendations by the parole commission to parole lifers went ignored for two decades until Gov. Larry Hogan granted the state’s first parole last year.

This individual was not a juvenile lifer.

Gov. Parris Glendening began the freeze on lifer parole in 1995 with his announcement “life means life.” Over the next 20 years, every single offender whom the Maryland Parole Commission recommended for parole “was rejected without any explanation to the individual denied parole,” the complaint states.

Maryland lifers are subjected to a system where the governor can reject a parole recommendation where no “explanation or rationale is provided to the individual who has been denied release [and] there is no process for appeal or review of the Governor’s decision,” the complaint continues.

In addition to Gov. Larry Hogan, the complaint names as defendants David Blumberg, chair of the Maryland Parole Commission; Stephen Moyer, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services; and Wayne Webb, commissioner of corrections.

Hogan’s office did not return a request for comment.


To Learn More:

Despite Supreme Court Ruling, at least 15 States Still Allow Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Juvenile Offenders often Receive less Justice than Adults (by Steve Straehley and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

Harvard Report Suggests Raising Age for Juvenile Justice to 21, Partly because Human Brain Doesn’t Fully Mature until mid-20s (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)


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