Students Testify On Behalf Of Juvenile “Lifers”

By Sara Fairchild and Sarah West

IMG_0511.JPG
Sarah West (L) and Sara Fairchild (R) are 3Ls in the AUWCL Criminal Justice Clinic (Defense)

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.

Living Up to Our Clients’ Hopes

As Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley signs into law Thursday the same-sex marriage bill passed by the Maryland legislature last week, I am glad for reasons well  beyond the obvious one—the elimination of a grossly discriminatory barrier to the gay and lesbian couples’ rights to have their relationships recognized and honored as equal.

As I think of this moment of progress, I think of the many clients served by the Immigrant Justice Clinic where I teach. Clients whose sexual orientation caused them to experience horrific suffering in their home countries. Beatings, rape, exile from families and communities…these are the all-too-common details typical of stories told to us by these men and women, all of whom came to America seeking safety. In societies where the promotion of LGBT rights meets ferocious resistance, where LGBT leaders are too often persecuted, these clients knew innately that their sexual orientation could not denied, and that living their lives freely and fully would be difficult, if not impossible, in their home countries. And so they each, at different times, and from different places, set out on perilous journeys to come to a place they hoped would be safer: the United States. Once here, they have eventually made their way to our clinic, where we have been able to help them secure asylum, despite enormous obstacles.

In a discussion about LGBT asylum, a student once asked me, aren’t we in some ways selling false hope? Despite vastly broader support for the LGBT communities in the United States, homophobia abounds. Hate crimes still occur. Indeed, although we sometimes like to think homophobia happens far away from us (like South Dakota’s appalling proposal to only recognize domestic violence when it occurs between a man and a woman), Washington, D.C. has itself in the last few months experienced a terrible string of attacks on transgendered people. Indeed, another of our clinic clients endured ongoing abuse by his boyfriend, and the clinic helped him apply for immigration status based on being a victim of a serious crime.

All this is undeniably true. Yet our clients nonetheless report feeling safer here, for the first time in their lives. Through phenomenal work being done at the Whitman Walker Clinic, at La Clinica del Pueblo, by the late-lamented WEAVE, and by other groups around the area, these survivors of some of life’s worst abuses have found places to come together, find solidarity, receive therapy and support, and begin building lives anew.

It is for these clients that I am happiest about Maryland’s new law. Slowly by slowly, we are living up to the vision they always had for us. We have many miles to go, but the progress will not be undone. And every shift that we make here toward a better, more inclusive world, sends even more hope to those still suffering in other countries—and supports the vision and fiercely courageous work being done by the advocates who remain in those countries, fighting fearlessly for change, so that no one need flee their homes again.

I salute our clients, I salute those who fight this fight here and in countries from El Salvador to Uganda. And I salute Maryland for getting it right.

La lucha sigue.

Elizabeth Keyes, Practitioner-in-Residence, WCL Immigrant Justice Clinic