Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative v. Hogan, No. ELH-16-1021, 2017 WL 467731 (D. Md. Feb. 3, 2017) – Plaintiffs in this Section 1983 action – all Maryland inmates serving life-with-parole sentences for homicides committed when they were juveniles – allege, inter alia, denial of a meaningful opportunity for release in violation of the Eighth Amendment and Article 25 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. They claim that although Maryland purports to provide parole eligibility for juvenile offenders serving life sentences, in practice the state’s parole system converts life sentences to unconstitutional life-without-parole sentences. This is because not a single parole-eligible juvenile lifer in Maryland has been paroled in the last twenty years. Addressing defendants’ motion to dismiss, the District Court determined that plaintiffs stated a plausible Eighth Amendment and Declaration of Rights claim and denied the motion in part. In particular, the court determined that plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged that Maryland’s parole system operates as a system of executive clemency, in which opportunities for release are “remote,” rather than a true parole scheme in which opportunities for release are “meaningful” and “realistic” as required by Graham.
In Maryland, parole is a discretionary system of conditional release administered by the Maryland Parole Commission (the “MPC”). Inmates like plaintiffs, serving life with parole sentences, may be eligible for parole after serving fifteen years or twenty-five years, depending on the circumstances. The MPC is directed to consider several factors in determining whether to grant parole, including the circumstances of the crime and the inmate’s progress during confinement. It is also required to consider special factors for juvenile offenders, including age, maturity, peer pressure, background, subsequent character development, and other factors or circumstances unique to juvenile offenders. By law, the Governor must approve a decision of the MPC to grant parole to an inmate who has served fewer than twenty-five years of a life sentence. Although such approval is not required if the Commission decides to parole an inmate who has served twenty-five years or more, the Governor may nonetheless “disapprove” the decision. There are no statutory or regulatory provisions governing the Governor’s exercise of discretion. According to plaintiffs’ allegations, although Maryland’s governors have in the last two decades received recommendations for parole of 24 individuals serving life sentences, they have rejected every recommendation without explanation.
The District Court first rejected defendants’ argument that Graham, Miller, and Montgomery do not apply because plaintiffs did not receive sentences of life without parole and instead bring this challenge against the state’s parole system. Citing Greiman, the court explained that, here, the responsibility for ensuring that plaintiffs received their constitutionally mandated “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” lies squarely with the state’s parole process. It reasoned that, in light of the promise in Graham and Montgomery that a meaningful opportunity for release extends to all juvenile offenders except for those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility, “it is difficult to reconcile the Supreme Court’s insistence that juvenile offenders with life sentences must be afforded a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation if the precept does not apply to the parole proceedings that govern the opportunity for release.” Noting the U.S. Supreme Court’s references to later opportunities to demonstrate this required change, the district court explained that it is unlikely the requisite maturity and rehabilitation would be evident at sentencing; instead, the vehicle to recognize it is the parole system. Ultimately, citing the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision in LeBlanc, the court determined that Graham and its progeny are not inapplicable to challenges to a system of parole or early release, concluding that “the rationale of Graham, Miller, and Montgomery applies to a Juvenile Offender sentenced to life with parole for a homicide offense.”
Next, the district court concluded that plaintiffs plausibly alleged denial of a meaningful opportunity for release. Again citing LeBlanc, it explained that the Governor” possesses unfettered discretion to deny every parole recommendation for any reason whatsoever or for no reason at all.” This absence of any governing standards “flies in the face of LeBlanc,” functioning as a system of executive clemency that does not constitute a meaningful opportunity to obtain release for juvenile offenders. Moreover, plaintiffs allege that they have been impermissibly denied parole due to the nature of their offenses or their status as lifers, and that juvenile offenders are treated worse by the Maryland parole system due to the risk assessment tools used. This, too, supports their claim of denial of a meaningful opportunity to obtain release. Accordingly, defendants’ motion to dismiss was denied (in relevant part).