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Challengers to Md. sentencing of young offenders welcome 4th Ciruit’s decision

Frosh says 4th Ciruit ruling helps state's position

A federal appeals court decision striking down the life-without-parole sentence of a juvenile offender in Virginia has provided ammunition for Maryland civil-rights attorneys who claim 200 convicts are being held unconstitutionally under de facto life sentences without parole because the state’s governors have historically not granted parole to these lifers who committed their crimes in their youth.

But the Maryland attorney general’s office has countered that last month’s court ruling supports his position that the state’s sentencing of juveniles is constitutional because these offenders, unlike the person in Virginia, were sentenced to life in prison with the expressly stated possibility of parole and their continued detention is periodically reviewed in good faith.

Both sides submitted their positions in papers filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, where Judge Ellen L. Hollander will consider whether juveniles sentenced to life in prison do, in fact, have a constitutionally valid possibility of parole. She is scheduled to hold a hearing Jan. 4 on the state’s motion to dismiss the constitutional challenge.

Hollander requested the filings shortly after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in LeBlanc v. Mathena that Virginia’s allowance for lifers to apply for prison release at age 60 did not render constitutional the state’s sentence of life without parole to a juvenile offender. In its decision, the 4th Circuit said Virginia’s “geriatric release” program does not provide Dennis Leblanc and other juvenile offenders a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” as the U.S. Supreme Court requires.

Seizing on the 4th Circuit’s language, the civil-rights attorneys said Maryland similarly lacks “governing standards” regarding parole and provides too much authority to the governor.

“This holding is the cornerstone of (the 200 convicts’) assertion that the Maryland parole regime, including a statute granting the governor unfettered discretion to reject parole recommendations for juvenile lifers for any reason whatsoever (including no reason), does not offer juvenile offenders a ‘meaningful opportunity for release,’ and similarly violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment,” lead attorney Barry J. Fleishman wrote in the filing. “The 4th Circuit ruled that Virginia’s parole regime failed that test after reviewing both the language and application of the Virginia parole regime. Plaintiffs are entitled to a similar opportunity to develop and litigate their challenge fully here.”

Fleishman, of Kilpatrick Townsend Stockton LLP in Washington, D.C., was joined in the filing by attorneys Deborah A. Jeon and Sonia Kumar of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

‘Meaningful opportunity’

The attorney general’s office, in the state’s filing, countered that Maryland “bears virtually no resemblance” to Virginia’s system, in which geriatric release is the only parole option for juvenile offenders sentenced to life. Maryland, by contrast, calls for review of prisoners’ files five years into their sentences and a hearing once they reach parole eligibility, Assistant Attorney General Steven M. Sullivan wrote.

“In stark contrast to Virginia’s Geriatric Release, Maryland’s parole procedures provide mandatory consideration for youthful offenders at an appropriate age,” Sullivan added. “Maryland’s parole procedures for juvenile lifers also satisfy the ‘meaningful opportunity’ requirement, because unlike in Virginia, Maryland’s mechanisms do not allow a decision maker to grant or deny early release for any reason without reference to any standards, and thus, Maryland’s scheme offers inmates much more than a bare possibility of release.”

The factors considered at the parole hearing include the convict’s age, level of maturity and sense of responsibility when the crime was committed and whether his or her character has developed in a way that indicates compliance with the terms of release, according to Maryland regulations.  The governor then has the final say on whether the convict will be paroled.

Sullivan was joined in the filing by Assistant Attorneys General Julia Doyle Bernhardt and Michael O. Doyle.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU of Maryland seeks a judicial declaration that a sentence in Maryland of life with the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders is in reality a life sentence due to the reticence of governors to grant parole. Many of these offenders have served at least 30 years in prison with a most unlikely chance for parole, the ACLU chapter stated in urging the federal court “to provide a meaningful and realistic opportunity” for their release in light of two recent Supreme Court decisions.

In 2012, the high court held in Miller v. Alabama that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’” The justices said the constitutional prohibition does not necessarily apply to murder but requires judges to “take into account how children are different [from adults], and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

In January, the Supreme Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller holding applies retroactively to those convicted prior to the justices’ ruling.

The ACLU of Maryland filed its suit on April 6, claiming that life with the possibility of parole is the functional equivalent of life without the possibility of parole in the state.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, in papers filed with the district court, disputed the ACLU’s contention that life sentences with the possibility of parole are de facto life sentences. He cited four cases in which former governors Martin O’Malley and Robert Ehrlich Jr. commuted the sentences of juvenile offenders between the years 2003 and 2015.

The case before the U.S. District Court is Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative et al. v. Gov. Larry Hogan et al., No. 1:16-cv-01021-ELH.

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