Get unlimited digital access to baltimoresun.com. $0.99 for 4 weeks.
News Opinion Op-Eds

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 © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • How can state leaders still cling to death penalty?

    The death penalty in the hands of politicians: Few things seem as twisted and as troubling as the matter of state-sponsored executions authorized by men and women with large nameplates pinned to their lapels. While in the ideal they might be devoted to public service and to representative...

  • O'Malley grants clemency to two serving life sentences

    Mark Farley Grant has maintained innocence since arrest at age 14

  • Hogan's phosphorus regulations reflect the nation's best science
    Hogan's phosphorus regulations reflect the nation's best science

    There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what Gov. Larry Hogan's Agriculture Phosphorus Initiative really contains, and I would like to clearly state the facts about how we plan to address phosphorus.

  • A code to teach by
    A code to teach by

    Do you remember your first favorite teacher? I do. She made me feel like I could do anything and that I was destined to make a contribution to this world. I mattered in her class. It would not be until almost 20 years later that I would truly understand what made her great.

  • Netanyahu wants war
    Netanyahu wants war

    The grand spectacle of a foreign leader's address to Congress by the invitation of political opponents is disturbing to say the least. But Benjamin Netanyahu's message was even more disturbing. The Israeli prime minister told the American people Tuesday that their president, along with the...

  • A lifetime spent in service
    A lifetime spent in service

    After 30 years in the Senate and a half-century of public service to Maryland and the nation, Barbara Mikulski will retire from elected politics next year. She will leave a legacy as one of the state's most admired politicians and among the most influential women ever to serve in Congress.

Comments
Loading