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Constitutionality of juvenile life sentences reaches Md. high court

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s top court will consider whether people sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles have a “meaningful opportunity” for clemency or parole by the state based on their maturity and rehabilitation behind bars, as required by the Constitution.

The Court of Appeals on Thursday agreed to hear the appeals of three now-adult lifers who argue that their sentences violate the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. They cite, through counsel, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that the Constitution requires juvenile offenders be given a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” which they contend is not possible in Maryland.

In papers filed with the Court of Appeals, the lifers’ attorney stated the Maryland General Assembly has “done nothing” and the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services very little in the seven years since Graham v. Florida to ensure the Parole Commission considers a juvenile offender’s maturity and rehabilitation in prison in making its recommendation to the governor.

Thus, “the commission can continue to refuse to recommend parole for rehabilitated lifers based on other factors such as the nature of the original crime,” Assistant Maryland Public Defender Brian Saccenti wrote in successfully requesting the high court hear the convicts’ appeals. “Even if a juvenile lifer is among the tiny percentage of lifers recommended for parole, Maryland law allows the governor to deny parole without considering the mitigating role of the offender’s youth at the time of the crime or his maturity or rehabilitation.”

The convicts mounting the high-court challenge are Daniel Carter, who committed first-degree murder at age 15; James Bowie, who committed attempted first-degree murder and robbery at age 17; and Matthew McCullough, who was found guilty of four counts of first-degree assault for an attack at age 17 and was given a de facto life sentence of 100 years in prison.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and his assistant Robert Taylor Jr. took the unusual position of not opposing the convicts’ request for Court of Appeals review, noting the need for the high court’s guidance on sentencing juvenile offenders.

In their high-court filing, Frosh and Taylor stated that the intermediate Court of Special Appeals correctly held that the convicts’ constitutional challenges were premature because they remain eligible for release as they did not received the state’s harshest punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But Saccenti, in appealing the cases to the high court, said the issue of whether the convicts have a meaningful opportunity for release is ready for Court of Appeals review despite their ostensible eligibility for parole.

“That virtually no Maryland lifers are paroled or released except through executive clemency shows quite clearly that juvenile lifers do not have a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” Saccenti wrote. “This glaring incongruity between what Maryland does with juvenile lifers and what the Eighth Amendment requires is the kind of problem that this Court (of Appeals) exists to resolve.”

The court is scheduled to hear arguments in the cases in February and expected to render its decisions by Aug. 31. The cases are Daniel Carter v. Maryland, James Bowie v. Maryland and Matthew McCullough v. Maryland, Nos. 54, 55 and 56 September Term 2017.

The constitutional challenge before the Court of Appeals is similar to one the ACLU of Maryland is waging in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The ACLU chapter claims 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.

Maryland governors from both political parties went nearly 25 years without adopting any Parole Commission recommendation to release a prisoner sentenced to life in prison. Current Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who took office in January 2015, ended that drought by granting non-medical parole to two individuals who were serving life, as well commuting four life sentences.

U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander has allowed the ACLU’s case to proceed toward trial on the claim that Maryland has violated the Eighth Amendment. Hollander said the inmates have sufficiently alleged that parole for juvenile lifers is illusory in the state.

The federal-court case is Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative et al. v. Gov. Larry Hogan et al., No. 1:16-cv-01021-ELH.

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