By Sara Fairchild and Sarah West
This year, students in the Criminal Justice Clinic had the opportunity to represent individuals serving life sentences in Maryland for crimes committed as juveniles. Maryland is one of only three states in the U.S. that give their governors final authority to deny parole to people serving life-with-parole sentences. Even if the Maryland Parole Commission recommends a “lifer” for parole, the Governor may reject the Commission’s recommendation and deny release for any reason. In 1995, Maryland’s then-Governor, Parris Glendening, announced a policy of refusing to grant parole regardless of a candidate’s growth or rehabilitation. Every Governor since has followed suit. Of the more than 200 individuals serving juvenile life sentences, none has been paroled in over two decades.
Our client was only fourteen years old at the time of the crime underlying his life sentence. When we met him, we learned about all of the things he has done to become a better person during his time in prison, and we saw that he is a different man from the child who committed a terrible crime decades ago. Despite this growth and progress, he may never see life outside of prison due to the state’s unforgiving parole system.
In a series of decisions issued over the last decade, including Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, and Montgomery v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that sentencing a juvenile to a lifetime in prison without a “meaningful opportunity for release” violates the Eighth Amendment in all but the rarest of cases.
This spring, we voiced our concerns before the Maryland House of Delegates, which was considering House Bill 723. The proposed legislation, supported by the Maryland ACLU and the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, seeks to repeal the provisions in Maryland’s parole statute that give the Governor final say in parole decisions for individuals serving life sentences.
On February 14, we testified before the House Judiciary Committee, urging the Delegates to support HB 723. We talked about our client, a man who is the epitome of someone who deserves parole because of the steps he has taken to change. We argued that the purpose of the parole system is to encourage inmates to rehabilitate and prove themselves to be worthy of release. We pointed out the cognitive and emotional differences between adults and juveniles, which have caused the Supreme Court to distinguish the two when looking at the constitutionality of a life sentence without parole. Finally, we asked the delegates to recognize the reality of the situation and acknowledge that even though Maryland law theoretically provides the possibility of parole to juvenile lifers, under current law, none have a “meaningful opportunity for release.”
HB 723 passed in the House of Delegates in March 2017. It is currently pending before the Maryland Senate. You can check the status of the legislation here.