ANNAPOLIS – Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order Friday stating he will give juvenile offenders serving life sentences a “meaningful opportunity for release” based on their demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation while in prison – standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court but decried by a civil-rights group and defense counsel as lacking in the state’s parole system.
Hogan’s order comes as federal and state courts are considering claims that life sentences with the opportunity for parole for juveniles violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment because Maryland governors have historically not granted parole to those serving life in prison.
Attorneys for the now-adult convicts have cited the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Florida that the Constitution requires juvenile offenders be given a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” which the lawyers contend is not now possible in Maryland.
But Hogan said his order puts in place his policy that Maryland’s parole process does afford juvenile offenders that meaningful opportunity.
“Since taking office, our administration has sought to bring balance to Maryland’s criminal justice system, which includes offering individuals who have paid their debt to society a second chance to live productive lives,” Hogan said in a statement. “The policies that we have been following, which are now made law through this executive order, will help us achieve a proper balance between public safety and our administration’s goal of helping ex-offenders successfully reenter the community.”
But attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the state public defender’s office called Hogan’s action meaningless.
“The order – which the governor could revoke at any time – is primarily hollow, self-serving language that doesn’t fix the longstanding constitutional deficiencies of Maryland’s parole scheme and simply reinforces the lack of any actual standard to ensure individuals who have demonstrated their rehabilitation are actually released,” ACLU of Maryland staff attorney Sonia Kumar said in a statement. “And the governor’s assertion that Maryland affords juvenile lifers a meaningful opportunity for release is completely unsupported by the facts, considering that not a single juvenile lifer has been paroled in the last two decades.”
Brian M. Saccenti, of the public defender’s office, said that Hogan’s executive order “does not remotely fix the problem” in the state.
The press release accompanying Hogan’s order states that it “formalizes the approach the governor was already following, but the fact that zero juvenile lifers have been paroled under this approach (or for the last 20 years) proves that it does not afford them a meaningful opportunity for release if they become rehabilitated,” added Saccenti, who heads the office’s appellate division. “In it, the governor orders himself to consider certain information, but never commits to actually releasing juvenile lifers who have reformed.”
Multiple court cases
In the federal court case, the ACLU of Maryland claims the state 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 of the governors’ historical reticence to grant parole.
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. 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 seven life sentences.
U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander has allowed the ACLU of Maryland’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 case is in settlement conference.
The case is Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative et al. v. Gov. Larry Hogan et al., No. 1:16-cv-01021-ELH.
Maryland’s top court took up the issue Tuesday, as it heard arguments from the state public defender’s office that life sentences with the opportunity for parole are illegal for juveniles because the opportunity for parole is not true. The Court of Appeals is expected to issue its decision in the three argued cases 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.