In Maryland, not one juvenile lifer has been paroled in the last 20 years, even though there are more than 200 individuals in Maryland who were convicted as juveniles and are currently serving life sentences with eligibility for parole. The governor has unlimited power to determine who is paroled and more commonly who is denied parole because he is required to sign off on any parole recommendation. This discretion effectively turns parole into a phantom phenomenon for juvenile lifers in Maryland. The American Civil
Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of multiple inmates represented by the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. In the suit, the Plaintiffs collectively claim the current parole system in Maryland is not functioning as it should because plaintiffs have continued to be “denied a meaningful opportunity for release.” The plaintiffs named in the suit were all sentenced under a Maryland mandatory life sentence.
The parole process is supposed to consider factors such as attitude and emotional maturity, circumstances surrounding the crime, progress during confinement, as well as home and employment plans. In Maryland, an individual serving a life sentence may be eligible for parole after serving 15 years. The Maryland Parole Commission does have some authority to approve parole for an inmate who has served at least twenty-five years of a life sentence, but the Governor may still override this recommendation. Even a medical parole request for a person serving life needs approval from the governor. Maryland, California, and Oklahoma are the only three states that require their respective governors to approve all parole recommendations. And only Maryland and California separate
individuals serving life with the possibility of parole from all other parole eligible sentences.
In the landmark Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama, the Court determined that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offenders violate the eighth amendment and are therefore unconstitutional. In 2010, the Court stated in Graham v. Florida (banning life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile not convicted of a homicide), and reaffirmed in Miller (2012) that a meaningful opportunity for parole is necessary for individuals convicted as juveniles serving life sentences, because they are more capable of rehabilitation as they mature. A “meaningful opportunity” does not mean a remote possibility, but rather a realistic opportunity for release. In theory, this should mean that if an inmate has no infractions while in prison, completes programs, earns degrees or learns trades, then his or her chance of being paroled should be greater than an inmate who does nothing 'worthwhile' in prison. Parole is often the only hope an offender may have in prison and further, if an inmate shows he or she has changed and is no longer a danger to society, then he or she should be paroled and reintegrated back into society. If we take away an inmate's hope of ever being released, then what motivation does that inmate have to follow the rules and try to better him- or herself?
Historically, from 1969 to 1995 a range of 25 to 92 lifers were approved yearly for parole by Maryland Governors. This all changed in 1993 when Rodney Stokes ended his own life and the life of his girlfriend after being released on parole. Two years after this tragic event, Governor Parris Glendening proclaimed "life means life," meaning he would not grant parole for any offender serving a life sentence. Unfortunately, it seems that all Maryland governors that have come after him have followed this policy. It is precisely
this reason that governors should not have the final say in whether an individual is paroled or not. It is not right to give the governor this amount of power and discretion by allowing him to deny every parole recommendation without requiring any justification for denial; a governor's political need to appear 'tough on crime' should not outweigh an offender's chance for parole. This process makes the Parole Commission in Maryland obsolete. Parole Commission employees have no incentive to properly perform their job because they know the governor will deny their recommendation for parole every single time. Maryland is in the minority in the parole process and it is time we realize the majority has a better grasp on the purpose of parole.
Some individuals serving life sentences were sentenced under mandatory minimum laws. For example, Stanley Mitchell was the getaway driver during a robbery that ended in the death of a business executive in Baltimore. During his thirty-five years in prison, Mitchell was recommended for release three times by the Parole Commission. Each time he was denied by the respective sitting governor in Maryland. He has since been released from prison after discovering a flawed jury instruction from his trial and making a deal with the assigned prosecutor-- not because of parole.
On April 6, 2016, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Governor Hogan and four others, collectively identified as the State. In a memorandum opinion, the State filed a Motion to strike which was denied, and a Motion to Dismiss which was denied in part and granted in part (declaring that C.L. § 2-201(b) does not violate the Maryland Declaration of Rights). The case will move forward. Hopefully this case will effectively shine a light on the unfairness involved in the Maryland parole system. Even if the ACLU case does not succeed, maybe Governor Hogan will actually start considering the parole recommendations that are put on his desk.