State pa­role board to re­view 300 life terms

Hear­ings for in­mates sen­tenced as ju­ve­niles

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Ali­son Kneze­vich

The Mary­land Pa­role Com­mis­sion says it plans to hold hear­ings within the next year for nearly 300 in­mates who were sen­tenced to life for crimes they com­mit­ted as ju­ve­niles.

The state’s plan is con­tained in new fil­ings as part of a fed­eral court case that al­leges Mary­land’s pa­role sys­tem is un­con­sti­tu­tional be­cause ju­ve­nile lif­ers have not had a re­al­is­tic op­por­tu­nity for re­lease. At­tor­neys for the state ar­gued this week in a mo­tion to dis­miss the law­suit that it’s moot be­cause of the planned hear­ings and other changes.

They point to reg­u­la­tions that take ef­fect this month, re­quir­ing the Pa­role Com­mis­sion to con­sider a va­ri­ety of fac­tors, in­clud­ing an in­mate’s level of ma­tu­rity, home en­vi­ron­ment and fam­ily re­la­tion­ships at the time of the of­fense, and whether oth­ers pres­sured the ju­ve­nile to com­mit the crime.

The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union

of Mary­land sued Gov. Larry Ho­gan and other state of­fi­cials in April, al­leg­ing that Mary­land’s pa­role sys­tem for ju­ve­niles sen­tenced to life vi­o­lates the Con­sti­tu­tion.

A lawyer for the ACLU called the state’s plan to hold the hear­ings a “red her­ring.”

“From our per­spec­tive, it’s a fairly ob­vi­ous at­tempt to of­fer su­per­fi­cial changes,” said So­nia Kumar, a staff at­tor­ney for the or­ga­ni­za­tion. “The ques­tion has never been whether or not peo­ple get hear­ings. It’s about whether those hear­ings serve any mean­ing­ful pur­pose.”

The ACLU filed the law­suit on be­half of the Mary­land Restora­tive Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive and three state in­mates serv­ing life sen­tences for crimes they were con­victed of as teens.

Their law­suit points to U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sions that manda­tory life-with­out-pa­role sen­tences for ju­ve­niles are un­con­sti­tu­tional ex­cept in rare cases. While Mary­land does not have manda­tory life­with­out-pa­role sen­tences, the law­suit notes that no ju­ve­nile lifer in the state has been paroled in the past two decades.

Mary­land’s pa­role sys­tem re­quires the gover­nor to sign off on parol­ing a per­son who is sen­tenced to life. The gover­nor does not have to grant pa­role, even if rec­om­mended by the Pa­role Com­mis­sion.

Ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, be­fore the mid-1990s, gov­er­nors reg­u­larly ap­proved the com­mis­sion’s pa­role rec­om­men­da­tions for lif­ers. But when Gov. Par­ris N. Glen­den­ing took of­fice, he said he would not pa­role those sen­tenced to life.

Gov­er­nors since Glen­den­ing, a Demo­crat, have re­duced sen­tences for sev­eral in­mates sen­tenced to life for crimes com­mit­ted as ju­ve­niles, lawyers for the state say in court fil­ings.

Ac­tivists call­ing for re­form of the pa­role sys­tem have pressed for years to re­move the gover­nor from the process, say­ing that pol­i­tics should be taken out of the equa­tion. Mary­land is one of three states where the gover­nor has fi­nal say on a pa­role rec­om­men­da­tion for those serv­ing a life sen­tences.

About 270 in­mates will be el­i­gi­ble for the new hear­ings, cor­rec­tions of­fi­cials said.

“We be­lieve this re­solves the con­cerns re­gard­ing pa­role con­sid­er­a­tion for of­fend­ers who were ju­ve­niles when they com­mit­ted their crimes,” Gerry Shields, a spokesman for the state De­part­ment of Pub­lic Safety and Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices, said in an email. “It meets the re­quire­ments set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court to pro­vide those of­fend­ers with the op­por­tu­nity to be con­sid­ered for pa­role.”

Peo­ple serv­ing life sen­tences typ­i­cally have a pa­role hear­ing af­ter about 11.5 years, Shields said. Then it is up to the com­mis­sion to de­cide when the in­mate will be con­sid­ered again for pa­role.

This sum­mer, the cor­rec­tions de­part­ment said that in­mates serv­ing life sen­tences for crimes com­mit­ted as ju­ve­niles will now be con­sid­ered for work-re­lease pro­grams in the com­mu­nity, which wasn’t pre­vi­ously al­lowed.

Sep­a­rately, the state’s of­fice of the pub­lic de­fender is chal­leng­ing life sen­tences for ju­ve­niles in cases through­out the state, ar­gu­ing that such lengthy sen­tences for de­fen­dants that young are “con­sti­tu­tion­ally sus­pect.”

James Johnston, head of the Mary­land Youth Re­sen­tenc­ing Project at the pub­lic de­fender’s of­fice, said in­mates also may not get fair pa­role hear­ings be­cause at­tor­neys can’t rep­re­sent them there.

Johnston said the planned pa­role changes are “a small step” but that more needs to be done to en­sure the state com­plies with Supreme Court rul­ings on ju­ve­nile sen­tenc­ing.

“The fact that pa­role reg­u­la­tions pre­vent lawyers from rep­re­sent­ing in­mates at pa­role hear­ings, and the to­tal lack of any ju­di­cial over­sight for pa­role de­ci­sions, con­trib­utes to the con­sti­tu­tional vi­o­la­tion,” Johnston said. “Re­view­ing close to 300 ju­ve­nile lif­ers for pa­role within a year is an enor­mous task, and do­ing so in a mean­ing­ful way that ac­tu­ally serves to iden­tify those in­mates who should be re­leased is even more of a chal­lenge.”

Many of the in­mates who will get these hear­ings have been in prison for decades, Johnston said.

Rus­sell But­ler, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mary­land Crime Vic­tims’ Re­source Cen­ter, said he hopes the state will try to con­tact vic­tims’ fam­ily mem­bers about the hear­ings. The in­mates have been con­victed of crimes in­clud­ing rape and mur­der.

In Mary­land, only vic­tims of cer­tain crimes or their sur­vivors can re­quest that a pa­role hear­ing be open to in­ter­ested par­ties.

“There were no vic­tim laws when a lot of these of­fenses took place,” But­ler said. “If vic­tims have never been told about their rights, how are they go­ing be able to know to re­quest an open hear­ing, where they can be present and where they can be heard, if no one ever told them their rights?”

Shields said the state “will con­duct a very ag­gres­sive search for any vic­tim fam­ily mem­bers, no mat­ter how long ago the crime oc­curred.”

In­mates sen­tenced to life meet with two pa­role com­mis­sion­ers to be con­sid­ered for pa­role. Shields said if both com­mis­sion­ers de­ter­mine that some­one could be a can­di­date for pa­role, the pris­oner is re­ferred to a psy­chol­o­gist for a risk as­sess­ment.

The com­mis­sion holds about 11,500 pa­role hear­ings a year, he said.

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