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Md. juvenile lifers ask for ruling, injunction on parole system challenge

Individuals serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles asked a federal judge Thursday to issue an injunction blocking the state’s current parole system, which they claim is unconstitutional because it does not offer a meaningful opportunity for release.

The plaintiffs filed suit in 2016 but the lawsuit was stayed in January so the parties could work on a potential settlement. The Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative asked for the stay to be lifted in April and the court granted the motion last month over the state’s objection.

The plaintiffs’ motion filed Thursday asks for judgment on the pleadings and an injunction and alleges Maryland’s system, which grants the governor the sole authority to grant parole to someone serving a life sentence, has a “glaring threshold defect” making the statute unconstitutional on its face.

In a series of cases over the last decade, the Supreme Court has held life without a meaningful opportunity for release and clemency fails to provide that opportunity for defendants sentenced for crimes committed as juveniles. The court also ruled the prohibition on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles was retroactive.

The Maryland Court of Appeals has yet to rule on a challenge to the state’s parole system for juvenile lifers, but the plaintiffs in the federal case are pushing forward with their challenge.

“By giving the Governor this boundless authority, (the law) impermissibly eviscerates the most significant distinctions between parole and clemency, transforming the Maryland parole system into one of ad hoc executive clemency,” the motion argues.

An executive order issued by Gov. Larry Hogan in January “cannot salvage the unconstitutional statute,” according to the motion, because it only states the governor’s intent to exercise his discretion to approve or reject parole recommendations. The order also does not change the fact the governor has the sole statutory power to choose to reject parole recommendations, according to the motion.

U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander rejected the Maryland attorney general’s motion to dismiss the case last year, saying the inmates had 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.

Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate because there is no material issue of fact and the plaintiffs are entitled to relief as a matter of law, according to the motion. The standard is like summary judgment except the record is limited to the pleadings and documents incorporated by reference.

The case is Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative et al. v. Governor Larry Hogan et al., 1:16-cv-01021-ELH.

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