The Maryland Parole Commission says it plans to hold hearings within the next year for nearly 300 inmates who were sentenced to life for crimes they committed as juveniles.
The state's plan is contained in new filings as part of a federal court case that alleges Maryland's parole system is unconstitutional because juvenile lifers have not had a realistic opportunity for release. Attorneys for the state argued this week in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit that it's moot because of the planned hearings and other changes.
They point to regulations that take effect this month, requiring Parole Commission to consider a variety of factors, including an inmate's level of maturity, home environment and family relationships at the time of the offense, and whether others pressured the juvenile to commit the crime.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland sued Gov. Larry Hogan and other state officials in April, alleging that Maryland's parole system for juveniles sentenced to life violates the Constitution.
A lawyer for the ACLU called the state's plan to hold the hearings a "red herring."
"From our perspective, it's a fairly obvious attempt to offer superficial changes," said Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney for the organization. "The question has never been whether or not people get hearings. It's about whether those hearings serve any meaningful purpose."
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative and three state inmates serving life sentences for crimes they were convicted of as teens.
Their lawsuit points to U.S. Supreme Court decisions that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional except in rare cases. While Maryland does not have mandatory life-without-parole sentences, the lawsuit notes that no juvenile lifer in the state has been paroled in the past two decades.
Maryland's parole system requires the governor to sign off on paroling a person who is sentenced to life. The governor does not have to grant parole, even if recommended by the Parole Commission.
According to the lawsuit, before the mid-1990s, governors regularly approved the commission's parole recommendations for lifers. But when Gov. Parris N. Glendening took office, he said he would not parole those sentenced to life.
Governors since Glendening, a Democrat, have reduced sentences for several inmates sentenced to life for crimes committed as juveniles, lawyers for the state say in court filings.
Activists calling for reform of the parole system have pressed for years to remove the governor from the process, saying that politics should be taken out of the equation. Maryland is one of three states where the governor has final say on a parole recommendation for those serving a life sentences.
About 270 inmates will be eligible for the new hearings, corrections officials said.
"We believe this resolves the concerns regarding parole consideration for offenders who were juveniles when they committed their crimes," Gerry Shields, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in an email. "It meets the requirements set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court to provide those offenders with the opportunity to be considered for parole."
People serving life sentences typically have a parole hearing after about 11.5 years, Shields said. Then it is up to the commission to decide when the inmate will be considered again for parole.
This summer, the corrections department said that inmates serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles will now be considered for work-release programs in the community, which wasn't previously allowed.
Separately, the state's office of the public defender is challenging life sentences for juveniles in cases throughout the state, arguing that such lengthy sentences for defendants that young are "constitutionally suspect."
James Johnston, head of the Maryland Youth Resentencing Project at the public defender's office, said inmates also may not get fair parole hearings because attorneys can't represent them there.
Johnston said the planned parole changes are "a small step" but that more needs to be done to ensure the state complies with Supreme Court rulings on juvenile sentencing.
"The fact that parole regulations prevent lawyers from representing inmates at parole hearings, and the total lack of any judicial oversight for parole decisions, contributes to the constitutional violation," Johnston said. "Reviewing close to 300 juvenile lifers for parole within a year is an enormous task, and doing so in a meaningful way that actually serves to identify those inmates who should be released is even more of a challenge."
Many of the inmates who will get these hearings have been in prison for decades, Johnston said.
Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, said he hopes the state will try to contact victims' family members about the hearings. The inmates have been convicted of crimes including rape and murder.
In Maryland, only victims of certain crimes or their survivors can request that a parole hearing be open to interested parties.
"There were no victim laws when a lot of these offenses took place," Butler said. "If victims have never been told about their rights, how are they going be able to know to request an open hearing, where they can be present and where they can be heard, if no one ever told them their rights?"
Shields said the state "will conduct a very aggressive search for any victim family members, no matter how long ago the crime occurred."
Inmates sentenced to life meet with two parole commissioners to be considered for parole. Shields said if both commissioners determine that someone could be a candidate for parole, the prisoner is referred to a psychologist for a risk assessment.
The commission holds about 11,500 parole hearings a year, he said.