Maryland is moving away from the Supreme Court on issue of juvenile parole

For many juveniles in Maryland, parole is out of reach

Maryland is moving away from the Supreme Court on issue of juvenile parole

 By Walter Lomax

8:00 a.m. EDT, July 22, 2012

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.

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 [email protected].



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We attended a briefing in Annapolis June 5 hosted by the Maryland Advisory Committee ON Racial Disparities in Maryland Incarceration Rates.

Personally, I would suffice it to say; anyone who doesn’t know that racial disparities exist in the criminal justice system, in Maryland, and the rest of the country is similar to the ostrich when sticking their head in the ground believes that because it cannot see you, you cannot see it. My statement to the commission was if the criminal justice system was a business it would be broke, because there is no return on its investment, and that when I went to prison over forty years ago it was doing the period of Dr. King’s dream, yet I emerge forty years later into what could be considered his nightmare. The problem has existed for some time; it is now time to be talking about solutions. Our attempt to address, and offer a solution to a small part of the problem was to present a few facts on our advocacy.

  According to a report release by the Sentencing Project ‘No Exit’ in 2009 there are over 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., and in a report released by  the JFA institute, ‘Unlocking America’ in 2007 of the 2,022,600 people incarcerated in America; 392.200, were Latino, 731,200 were white, and 899,200 were African Americans. 44.45% of the total population. If Africans Americans make up 13-14% of the total population then this is an overwhelming disproportionate representation of people of color.

Our area of focus is people serving life sentences, and long term incarceration: Of the total number of people serving life sentences in America 66.4% are people of color, for those who were juveniles when sentenced, 77% are youth of color.

In Maryland of the 2,600 people serving life sentences 76% are people of color.

And of the 269 Juveniles serving life sentences, 226 are Africans Americans, of the 19 serving life without parole 15 are people of color 78.9%

Some of these people have been incarcerated 20, 30, and in some cases 40 years or more. The parole commission consistently recommends people for parole, however, because in Maryland, California, and Oklahoma their release require a governor’s approval so they are being denied release. We have advocated, since 1996 to release the governor of this responsibility, finally in 2011 legislatures responded by passing legislation requiring the governor act within 180 days on any recommendation before his office. The governor responded by denying all but two of the 50 cases before his office. This year we advocated for two modest changes: Those persons sentenced when they were juveniles, and those convicted under the felony murder statute. Neither bill passed.

 Race may not necessarily be the cause of their continued incarceration; however, the fact that people of color are overwhelmingly disproportionately represented of this population, should be viewed with mitigating circumstances; i.e. their social, economic, and political status.

While our efforts may not address the overall disproportionate representation of people of colors incarceration, it does address an important segment of this population. We believe that the parole commissioners are highly qualified, and take every precaution when making their decisions, which should be final.

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Washington Post Op-ed

That Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is considering commuting the prison
sentences of two people serving parole-eligible life
sentences in Maryland suggests that grass-roots efforts to reform the laws
governing these sentences are having an impact.
But the release of Tamara Settle and Mark Farley Grant would do nothing to
address the larger issue that keeps the other 50-plus
"lifers" who have been recommended for release behind bars. From a public
safety standpoint, or as a matter of fairness, it
makes no sense to require a figure as political as a governor to give his
stamp of approval to Maryland Parole Commission
With this recent announcement, O'Malley is acting on two clear cases of
injustice. Having been imprisoned for close to 40
years for a crime I did not commit, I understand the importance of
addressing such injustices and know how much it means to
the people being considered and to their families. Grant was only 14 when
he was convicted of a crime that the only witness
later said he did not carry out. Settle has already served three times as
long as the person who actually pulled the trigger
in her case. Both should have been released years ago.
O'Malley might still act to address other examples of overly harsh
sentences or even outright innocence. But all of the Marylanders
given life sentences with the possibility of parole were told, and
believed, that they would have a meaningful chance to return
home one day if they behaved well, made serious efforts to rehabilitate
themselves and accepted responsibility for the harm
they caused. O'Malley, however, has turned down all those recommended for
release since last March, demonstrating that this
won't happen under the current system.
It's time to take the governor out of the process. That only 53 out of
2,500 people serving such parole-eligible life sentences
have been recommended for early release shows that the members of the
parole commission are being conservative and thoughtful
in their decision-making. Clearly, they take seriously their
responsibility to recommend release for only those whom they
believe will not jeopardize public safety and will be successful when they
reenter the community. Their decisions should stand.
This year, two modest fixes have been proposed in the Maryland Senate.
These bills would exempt from gubernatorial review
the two categories of life-term cases represented by Grant and Settle:
those who were juveniles at the time of their offense,
and those who were accessories, not principals, in the crime. Many people
who have received life sentences made a bad decision
to be involved in a felony but never killed or intended to kill anyone; to
keep them locked up forever without any hope of
release is not right. And virtually all countries have rejected
life-without-parole sentences - which these sentences have
effectively become in Maryland - for those who were children when they
were sent to prison. In fact, the constitutionality
of such sentences is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
I have been working on this issue since my release in 2006 because there
are many who have been in prison for decades who
would be an asset to their families and communities if released. As it is,
what hope they have had, what incentive that the
possibility of parole has provided them to better themselves, has all but
been stripped from them.
It was one year ago, during a rally at the Capitol, that O'Malley echoed
the words of one of his predecessors and told TV
cameras that "life means life." [NOTES: [[LINK?]]]
Former governor Parris Glendenning has since taken those words back,
stating that he no longer supported policies that did
not allow parole consideration for people serving eligible life sentences.
That the governor is willing to consider approving
the parole commission's decision in two cases of clear injustice is a step
in the right direction. Now the General Assembly
needs to go further.
The writer is the executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice

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Featured Blog on Audacious Ideas

See our Parole Reform post at the Open Society Institute's Audacious Ideas Blog!  We're happy the dialog has been initiated on this important subject. Please visit the blog and add your comments. Include your ideas on how we can improve on the work.

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Prison reform in Maryland

Prison reform in Maryland has not kept pace with other states, and while Maryland had one of the most progressive prison systems in the country prior to 1993, it now lags behind in prison reform. Maryland’s system  had a robust educational and vocational program, with parole expectancy built into the system. A person progressed from maximum security to medium, minimum, prerelease, work release, family leave, and eventually released on parole. While much has been done to improve the parole system, and increase eligible person’s chances of being released there are still major areas of concern. Specifically programming for those being released, and access to reentry programs once released.

The Risk assessment instrument is a valuable tool, it helps identify people who can be safely supervised in the community, and should be applied to all categories of incarcerated individuals. People serving parole eligible life sentences has a less recidivism rate than all others release on parole, less than 6%. An area of specific concern is those individuals who were sentenced as juveniles, and those convicted under the felony murder rule; people who were not the primary in committing the crime.

Paroling more people could save money. Appropriately increasing the use of parole can safely reduce prison and jail populations and their associated costs.  In 2010, the annual cost of supervising a person on probation or parole in Maryland was $1,850, which is only five percent of the $36,000 per person cost of incarceration. Maryland Bar Journal. Correctional Reform, December 2011. Monique Dixon, Tracy Velázquez, Walter Lomax.


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Walter Lomax - Featured Profile on "Audacious Ideas"

Mandala Enterprise Corporation Director, Walter Lomax has a featured profile on the OSI Audacious Ideas blog. Look soon for his blog post.

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A circle enclosing a square, the mandala is the Buddhist graphic symbol of the universe, and represents a mirror of natural cycles.