Maryland inmates who are serving parole-eligible life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles may now be considered for minimum-security and pre-release facilities under a new state policy — which means they could be allowed to participate in work-release programs in the community.
Public Safety Secretary Stephen T. Moyer this month reversed rules that for two decades barred any Maryland lifer from being placed in a facility that is below medium-security.
The change comes in response to recent Supreme Court decisions on juvenile life sentences, according to a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. The court has found that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
"We are re-examining all of our policies as they pertain to juvenile lifers as a result of the Supreme Court rulings," spokesman Gerry Shields said in an e-mail.
Maryland has 271 inmates serving parole-eligible life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles, according to the state parole commission.
To move to a lower security facility under the new policy, an inmate would have to be approved by the parole commission.
The ACLU of Maryland has sued state officials over Maryland's parole system for juveniles sentenced to life in prison, saying it is unconstitutional because they don't have a meaningful chance of release.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit in April on behalf of three inmates serving life sentences and the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative.
Until the mid-1990s, the ACLU says, juveniles serving parole-eligible life sentences "routinely received opportunities to demonstrate their rehabilitation by progressing through reduced security levels within the DOC."
"They were able to proceed to minimum and pre-release security classifications and thus participate in work-release and family leave programs," the ACLU says in the lawsuit. "Through participation in these programs, they were able to gradually re-establish family and community ties, maintain steady employment, pay taxes, and even volunteer in the community, all while being subjected to regular and random drug testing and other supervision, including psychological evaluations."
Then there were two high-profile escapes, and a separate incident in which a convicted murderer on work release fatally shot his former girlfriend and then himself. Corrections officials moved 134 lifers from pre-release to medium-security prisons, and in 1995, then-Gov. Parris Glendening announced that no one serving a life sentence in Maryland would be paroled.
Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, said the center has no position on the new directive.
"However, there is an inherent risk of placing convicted murderers and rapists in minimum security settings and on work release," Butler said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun. He said the center urges the state "to proceed cautiously and prudently in individual cases under the new directive before allowing murderers and rapists out of prison."
Butler said he does not believe Supreme Court rulings required the state to adopt the new directive. He said they apply only to mandatory sentences.
"Maryland does not have mandatory life without parole," Butler said. "Just punishment for murderers and rapists must include life sentences with and without parole to help deter the commission of these violent crimes."
His center has filed a motion to intervene in the ACLU litigation.
Walter Lomax, executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, said work-release programs are "an opportunity to gradually be returned back into society" and provide incentives.
"A program such as this creates incentives where individuals see, 'Hey, I can work toward this,'" he said.
Lomax and ACLU of Maryland staff attorney Sonia Kumar both said they questioned why the new state policy applies only to juvenile lifers, not the entire lifer population.
Kumar said much will depend on how the new policy is carried out.
"The issue in our lawsuit is, do juvenile lifers have a meaningful opportunity for release?" Kumar said. "This creates the possibility of that. But whether that's a possibility that's fulfilled or not I think will really depend on whether people are recommended and approved to move through the ... system."
James Johnston, director of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender's Youth Re-Sentencing Project, said the new policy is not "automatic."
"I think it's going to take some time for this to be fully implemented because the parole commission will have to review these individuals," he said.
Johnston's office is challenging life sentences for juveniles around the state. He said participating in work-release can help an inmate establish a record of rehabilitation.
"For those who are doing well in the institution," he said, "they'll have more of a record to show — either to the parole commission or to a judge — that they've been rehabilitated that they've changed and that they can live in the outside world."