Juvenile life ruling affects some with parole option
BALTIMORE | A Supreme Court decision triggering new sentences for inmates serving mandatory life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles has had a far greater effect: The ruling is prompting lawyers to apply its fundamental logic — that it’s cruel and unusual to lock teens up for life — to a larger population, those whose sentences include a parole provision but who stand little chance of getting out.
The court in January 2016 expanded its ban on mandatory life without parole for juveniles to more than 2,000 offenders already serving such sentences, saying teens should be treated differently than adult offenders because they’re less mature, prone to manipulation and capable of change.
The court found that all but the rare juvenile lifer whose crime reflects “permanent incorrigibility” should have a chance to argue for freedom one day, and dozens serving mandatory terms have since been resentenced and released.
But legal challenges also are being argued on behalf of offenders sentenced to life with parole for crimes committed as teens — a population totaling some 7,300 inmates nationwide, according to Ashley Nellis at advocacy group The Sentencing Project.
“Even states that do have parole, it doesn’t give a lot of reason for hope,” Ms. Nellis said. “The Supreme Court was very clear to say that age-related factors need to be considered at resentencing or parole review, but the feedback we’re seeing is that those factors aren’t being considered.”
Maryland, Oklahoma and California are the only three states that require the governor to sign off on parole recommendations for lifers.
Last year the American Civil Liberties Union sued Maryland, arguing that a life-with-parole sentence doesn’t afford prisoners a meaningful shot at release because governors for two decades haven’t approved any petitions.
Even Parris Glendening, the former Maryland governor who set the standard when he declared in 1995 that “life means life,” says the system he designed is dysfunctional.
“What happens with lifers now, I had some responsibility. And I say that not with pride, but with regret,” Mr. Glendening told the AP. “What we’re finding now is people who are juveniles … they are now aging in prison, are probably a threat to no one at this stage. It’s a question of humane treatment: Is it humane or cruel and unusual to have someone sitting in jail at 50, 60, 70 for an offense committed half a century ago?”
Maryland’s parole commission in October began reviewing all 271 lifers who committed crimes as juveniles, according to commission Chairman David Blumberg.
As of May, the commission had reviewed 76 cases: 45 have been scheduled for additional hearings, 20 were referred for psychological risk assessments, and nine were refused parole. Two asked for postponements. None have been released.
Gov. Larry Hogan said he and his team take the process seriously.
“They meet with the inmate. … They talk with the victim’s families and witnesses and spend months and months,” Mr. Hogan said. “And in a few cases I was convinced that people had served their debt to society and deserved a second chance, and several of them were people that were convicted at a very young age and had served long, long sentences and had been model prisoners and really rehabilitated themselves.”
But he hasn’t approved any parole bids for juvenile lifers. The commission, on average, has recommended fewer than two prisoners serving life sentences for parole per year since 1995, according to public defender James Johnston, who says the state’s system contravenes the essence of the Supreme Court rulings.
Mr. Johnston is at the forefront of a battle over whether even Maryland’s juvenile life-without-parole sentences fall under the high court’s mandate for review. Prosecutors say no, because the sentences aren’t mandatory.
In June, Mr. Johnston argued before a Maryland judge that Lee Malvo, one of the D.C. snipers who terrorized the Washington area for a month in 2002, deserved a new sentence. He was 17 and pleaded guilty to murder charges in Virginia and Maryland. He received life without parole in both states, but a Virginia judge recently ruled the term unconstitutional and ordered Malvo resentenced.
In Maryland, prosecutors say the judge made an informed decision. A ruling is pending.
Robert Boyd holds high school and college diplomas he earned while incarcerated, at his home in Baltimore. After 34 years behind bars, even Brian Murphy, the prosecutor who tried the case in 1982, offered to testify on his behalf.
Robert Boyd was sentenced to life at 16 for his role in a home invasion that turned deadly. Boyd was the lookout, standing watch on the porch.