Attorneys can proceed with their civil-rights lawsuit claiming that Maryland is unconstitutionally holding more than 200 juvenile offenders who are now adults under de facto sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole because the state’s governors have historically not granted parole to lifers.
U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander on Friday rejected the Maryland attorney general’s motion to dismiss the case, saying the inmates have sufficiently alleged that parole for juvenile lifers is illusory in the state and thus the convicts may proceed toward trial with their claim that Maryland has violated federal and state constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Notably, under the unambiguous text of Maryland law, Maryland’s governor possesses unfettered discretion to deny every parole recommendation for any reason whatsoever or for no reason at all,” Hollander wrote in her memorandum opinion enabling the lawsuit to proceed. “And, a system of executive clemency, which lacks governing standards, does not constitute a meaningful opportunity to obtain release for juvenile offenders.”
As the case proceeds, the juvenile offenders, now adults, will have to show the state has not provided them a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturing and rehabilitation,” Hollander said, quoting from U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, hailed Hollander’s decision permitting the case to proceed.
“For years, lifers and their families have tried to get the state to live up to the promise of second chances that a parole-eligible sentence is intended to provide,” Kumar said in a statement Monday. “This ruling is a real step forward in that struggle.”
Raquel Guillory Coombs, spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, declined to comment Monday on Hollander’s action because the litigation remains pending in federal court. The attorney general’s office has argued all of the plaintiffs’ sentences were constitutional.
The ACLU of Maryland filed the lawsuit last April, seeking a judicial declaration that a sentence in Maryland of life with the possibility of role 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, according to the lawsuit, which urges the federal court in Baltimore “to provide a meaningful and realistic opportunity” for their release in light of recent Supreme Court decisions.
In Graham v. Florida in 2010 and Miller v. Alabama in 2012, the high court held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for those under age 18 at the time of their crimes violate 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 2016, the Supreme Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller holding applies retroactively, to those convicted prior to the justices’ ruling.
Hollander cited those cases in permitting the lawsuit to proceed.
“At this stage of the proceedings, plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that Maryland’s parole system operates as a system of executive clemency, in which opportunities for release are ‘remote,’ rather than a true parole scheme in which opportunities for release are ‘meaningful’ and ‘realistic,’ as required by Graham,” Hollander wrote.
The case is Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative et al. v. Gov. Larry Hogan et al., No. 1:16-cv-01021-ELH.