Justice for Juvenile Lifers

In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders who had committed non-homicide offenses. “The juvenile should not be deprived of the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.

Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, even in cases of homicide, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan in the majority opinion. The Miller decision held that juvenile offenders, unless they were “irreparably corrupt,” were entitled to a “meaningful opportunity” for release from prison.

Then in 2016, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court held that Miller should be applied retroactively, and so all juvenile lifers languishing in jail should have ‘meaningful opportunities’ for release.

These three cases, Graham, Miller and Montgomery, have set new standards for juvenile lifers across the country, but not all states have equally stepped up to the plate to carry out their constitutional obligations. Maryland is one such state, and has not paroled a juvenile lifer in over two decades. (There are 200 parole-eligible juvenile offenders toiling away in the state’s prisons.)

Maryland is just one of three states where the governor has the final say in whether to approve parole for individuals with life sentences, and prison reform advocates say this structure results in an overly-politicized approval process, because no governor wants to be blamed for paroling someone who then turns around and reoffends. The fear of their own Willie Horton ad, advocates say, results in people being locked up forever.

I wrote a story for The Intercept about the mounting political, legal, and economic pressure to parole Marylanders with life sentences who have turned their lives around—especially juvenile offenders—and the associated pressure to remove the governor from the parole approval process altogether. In 2017 Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan opposed a bill that would have removed him from the parole process, calling it a partisan power grab that would “radically change our state government” and deny Marylanders the “needed and appropriate oversight” they deserve. Advocates are hoping in his second term, he can take more politically courageous steps. (It should be noted that Hogan’s Democratic predecessor, Martin O’Malley, was considered even worse on this issue — many suspect in part beacuse he didn’t want to risk anything derailing his presidential ambitions.)

You can read the story here: A GOP Governor Has A Chance To Fix A Blue State’s Draconian Approach to Paroling Juvenile Offenders