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For many juveniles in Maryland, parole is out of reach

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The court cited the developmental differences between young people and adults and concluded that children and teens are different from adults for the purpose of criminal sentences.

Maryland does not technically have mandatory sentencing to life without parole for minors. But for all practical purposes in our state, sentences of life with the possibility of parole have become synonymous with death in prison, contrary to the intent of sentencing judges. A succession of governors, who now have the power to make final parole decisions for people serving life sentences, have opted not to grant parole except in rare cases.

For the 269 people in Maryland serving parole-eligible life sentences who were sentenced as juveniles, there is no real opportunity for parole under our current system. Many of them have served 30, 40 or more years in prison, with no hope for parole no matter how much they have changed and matured in prison.

Consider, for example, Robert Martin, who was 15 when he was sent to prison in 1976 for killing his grandfather. He is now 50. Mr. Martin has taken advantage of every program available to him. In addition to his lengthy set of accomplishments in prison, we also are struck by the fact that Mr. Martin has been incarcerated for his entire adult life for a desperate teenage attempt to protect his baby sister and grandmother from an abusive family member.

Robert Martin is one of the many Marylanders sentenced as teenagers who deserve a fair chance.

Our organization, the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative (MRJI), does not advocate for the blanket release of any group of individuals; rather, we ask only that the state of Maryland honor the trust it has placed in the parole commissioners to determine whether an individual has proven he or she deserves to be released during his or her lifetime, rather than die in prison.

In 2012, we advocated for legislation to ensure that individuals sentenced to life as juveniles in Maryland have a meaningful opportunity for parole — not a guarantee of release, but a fair shot. The legislation would have had required parole commissioners to make final decisions on parole, replacing the current system in which that responsibility belongs to the governor.

A year earlier, we succeeded in passing legislation that imposed a deadline for the governor to act on such decisions, but it had a negligible effect on the process. Among the dozens of cases recommended for parole by the Parole Commission, the governor honored only two.

In California, which has a policy similar to Maryland's, Gov. Jerry Brown has accepted the parole board's action in 85 percent of the cases sent to his office. By contrast, in Maryland, Gov.Martin O'Malley has accepted the parole board's action in just 4 percent of the 50 cases sent to him.

A spokesperson for California's governor has said, "The parole board is an independent decision-making body, and its decisions are made by thoughtful and experienced commissioners that are well qualified to make parole determinations that do not jeopardize public safety."

We believe that Maryland's parole commissioners are equally qualified to make sound, just and fair decisions.

Maryland should come to grips with its record on this issue. We are among the worst of the worst states — third in the nation — when it comes to the proportion of young people serving life sentences. More than one of every 10 people serving a life sentence in Maryland was sent to prison as a teenager.

The MJRI applauds the Supreme Court's wise decision this month in Miller v. Alabama, a case that provides additional legal support for the sensible criminal justice policies we have sought for years. It's time for the General Assembly to review that decision and revisit the issue. If Maryland does not move to provide meaningful parole opportunities to teenagers sentenced to life in prison, the state may very well find itself in direct opposition to the Supreme Court's thinking about cruel and unusual punishment.

Maryland should have a fair parole system, especially when it comes to juvenile offenders.

Walter Lomax is project director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. His email is waltermandalalomax@hotmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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