The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state's parole system for juveniles sentenced to life in prison, alleging that the current setup is unconstitutional because youths don't have a meaningful chance for release.
More than 200 people are serving parole-eligible life sentences in Maryland for crimes committed as juveniles — but no juvenile lifer in the state has been paroled in the past two decades, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
"Many of these individuals have now served 30 or 40 years or more and have made admirable progress to demonstrate their maturity and rehabilitation," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit names as defendants Gov. Larry Hogan and several corrections officials.
Hogan spokesman Matthew Clark said state officials are reviewing the lawsuit.
Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokeswoman Shari Elliker said in a statement that officials are reviewing juvenile cases in light of a recent Supreme Court on youth sentences "and will continue to vigorously uphold the Constitutional rights of all individuals under the care and custody of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services."
"While we are continuing to review the material presented in the ACLU lawsuit, we wish to point out that the named plaintiffs all have had multiple parole hearings over the past several years," she said.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, a Baltimore-based prisoners' rights organization, and three men serving life sentences for crimes they were convicted of as teens. The three men are now ages 50, 51 and 59, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit cites a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings in recent years that have found that life-without-parole sentences for youths are unconstitutional except for the "rare juvenile whose crime reflects irreparable corruption."
"Maryland's current practices all but guarantee that juveniles sentenced to life — even those with a theoretical opportunity for parole — will die in prison no matter how thoroughly they have been reformed, all without adequate consideration of their youth status," the lawsuit states.
Under Maryland's parole system, only the governor can grant parole to a person sentenced to life. Even if the Maryland Parole Commission recommends parole, the governor does not have to grant it.
Before the mid-1990s, the state Parole Commission regularly recommended parole for lifers, and governors approved the recommendations. But the system "changed dramatically in 1995," the lawsuit states, when then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening took office. The governor said he would not grant parole to lifers.
The ACLU's legal complaint alleges that the current parole structure for juveniles sentenced to life "is a system of parole in name only."
"They're serving de facto life without parole sentences, which is something that is unconstitutional," said Walter Lomax, executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. "As the system exists now, no one [sentenced to life] is being paroled."
Lomax noted that about six people who were sentenced as juveniles have been released under a 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling known as the Unger decision — and said they have made successful transitions back into the community.
"People do change, and we are just asking that they be given a second chance," Lomax said. "We're not talking about just letting anybody and everybody be released. We're talking about people who have clearly demonstrated that they have rehabilitated themselves."
Among the men named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit is Kenneth Tucker, now 59, who was sentenced to life with parole in 1974 at age 17 for participating in a murder and robbery with another teen. The lawsuit states that his co-defendant killed the victim, and Tucker was charged with felony murder.
"Mr. Tucker pled guilty to the offense and accepted a paroleable life sentence based on the understanding that such a sentence meant that he would have a realistic opportunity for release when he reached parole eligibility," the lawsuit states.
In prison, Tucker "began turning his life around almost immediately," according to the lawsuit. He now aids terminally ill and mentally distressed prisoners in the Jessup Correctional Institution hospital and mentors other men, according the lawsuit.
In a separate legal effort, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender's Youth Resentencing Project has been reviewing the cases of people sentenced to lengthy sentences as juveniles and challenging the sentences individually in court.