Activists, former prisoners and prisoners’ family members packed a federal court room in Baltimore Wednesday to hear lawyers make the case for why the state needs to overhaul a system they say results in de facto life sentences without parole for people convicted of a crime when they were juveniles.
Three current prisoners, all in their 50s and wearing blue jumpsuits, were also present.
And although none of these three named plaintiffs spoke, their stories were meant to demonstrate a broken system. All three were given life-sentences with parole eligibility for charges relating to murder as teenagers, but they had not been considered for it despite showing exemplary behavior over decades.
In this first hearing on a lawsuit being closely watched amid a national debate on long sentences for juveniles, the specific issue was the state’s motion to dismiss. Amendments made to Maryland law in October, they argued, would make parole-eligible “lifers” more likely to be considered for release.
U.S. District Court Judge Ellen L. Hollander sharply challenged the state’s argument.
“The law has been amended, but the amendment applies to the [Parole] Board,” Hollander said. “It says nothing about anything considering the governor. So the governor remains with unfettered, unbridled discretion to do as he pleases, and without any standards.”
The attorney for the state, Michael Doyle, said the parole board is now required to take into account that juveniles “should be treated differently than adults, because of their lack of maturity, susceptibility to outside influences and the fact that their character isn’t developed.”
“The sentence cannot sentence someone to life without the possibility of parole without considering those factors,” he said.
Hollander, however, repeatedly returned to the fact that Maryland is one of three states where the governor has the final say in whether parole eligible lifers do in fact receive parole.
Doyle appeared unsure how to respond to Hollander’s comment that the governor could deny parole indefinitely simply “because he felt like it.”
Transparency and Remedies
The suit, filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland on behalf of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative (MRJI), addresses not just the role the governor plays, but the entire parole system.
Speaking after the hearing, ACLU attorney Sonia Kumar said the complaint calls for major changes to the parole rules to make the process more transparent. Advocates, she said, have no way of knowing why few of the 200 current inmates who are former juvenile, parole-eligible “lifers” aren’t having their cases reach the governor’s desk for approval.
“What we’re hearing from folks inside is that the parole commission is rushing hearings, and folks aren’t confident they’re actually considering them,” Kumar said, speaking with The Brew.
“We’re saying, look, we deserve an opportunity to investigate what the parole commission is actually doing, and whether the actual practices reflect the written policy,” she said. “You don’t undo a quarter of a century of an unconstitutional scheme with a written regulation with no teeth and isn’t enforceable.”
The lack of transparency in the parole board not only raises issues of concern for the plaintiffs – it also makes it harder for them to articulate the remedies they seek.
Hollander said the plaintiffs would do better to focus more on specifics, such as the governor’s unrestrained ability to grant parole.
“What I’m concerned about is the breadth of your challenge,” Hollander said.
“I thought your complaint was a challenge to the way the system of parole operates at the top,” she said. “Now I’m hearing you think you’re entitled to an overhaul of the entire parole system, as opposed to a cure that seems to me one that would be realistic, like setting standards for the governor to exercise his discretion.”
Initiative Led by Former Prisoner
Also attending the hearing was MRJI director Walter Lomax, a former prisoner himself. After serving nearly 40 years in prison for a fatal shooting, Lomax was released in 2006 amid questions about his trial.
In 2014, prosecutors formally dropped the charges against him and he was exonerated.
Lomax said after Wednesday’s hearing that he was confident the judge would make the changes necessary to help prisoners deserving parole.
He also acknowledged the concern from crime victims about his group’s proposed reforms and said MRJI often interacts with them.
“We work with an organization called Survivors Against Violence Everywhere, it’s a group of mothers who have lost their sons to violence,” Lomax said. “We support their fundraisers and make sure to discuss with them what we’re doing. Obviously you need to earn their way out and won’t just automatically be released.”
The two-and-a-half-hour hearing ended without a ruling by Hollander on the state’s motion.