ACLU Sues To Ensure Consideration of Youth Status in Sentencing and Parole
Challenge seeks to hold Maryland to constitutional requirement of “a second chance” for rehabilitated juvenile lifers
BALTIMORE — Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland filed suit in federal district court in Baltimore contending that Maryland’s current sentencing and parole schemes unconstitutionally condemn youth to spend the rest of their lives in prison without any meaningful chance at parole and without adequate consideration of their youth.
More than 200 individuals are serving parole-eligible life sentences for offenses committed as youth in Maryland, yet no “juvenile lifer” has been paroled in the last 20 years under Maryland’s current scheme. The suit argues that in Maryland parole exists in name only, denying juveniles who have clearly demonstrated their rehabilitation any meaningful opportunity for release, as required by the Eighth Amendment.
The lawsuit is brought on behalf of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, a prisoners’ rights organization that includes juvenile lifers and their families among its members, as well as three individuals subjected to mandatory life sentences for offenses committed decades ago when they were teens. Although the plaintiffs are serving “life with parole” sentences, the suit argues that in practice Maryland never paroles lifers, instead operating a system of executive clemency in which commutation of life sentences is extraordinarily rare. In this way, Maryland converts “life with parole” sentences into de facto “life without parole” sentences that constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
In the last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court, joined by other state and federal courts around the country, has repeatedly ruled that the Eighth Amendment forbids condemning kids to the most serious penalties as if they were not minors. Building on common sense, social science, and a growing body of neuroscience relating to adolescent brain development, the Court has noted that youth are more likely to make rash decisions due to their lack of maturity, are especially vulnerable to external forces, and are, by definition, still developing. As such, the Court has ruled, young offenders cannot be judged solely on the basis of their actions as adolescents. They are capable of dramatic reform and rehabilitation as they mature – so long as they are not denied hope of a second chance.
As a result of these differences, young people have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform than their adult counterparts, and the attributes of youth must be considered when subjecting youth to the harshest punishments. The Eighth Amendment bars life sentences for all juveniles other than the “rarest” juvenile offender “whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,” the Supreme Court has said. Under these rulings, youth cannot be condemned to life in prison without a real second chance—a “meaningful” and “realistic” opportunity for release upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. In sum, government decisions about sentencing and parole must take into account the offender’s status as a child at the time of offense.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that Maryland has not adhered to this constitutional rule in either sentencing or parole decisions by mandating life sentences without consideration of youth for certain offenses and by denying youth any real opportunity for release on parole even when they have plainly demonstrated their rehabilitation. Most of the 200 Marylanders serving life sentences were sentenced under a mandatory scheme that doesn’t require judges to consider their youth. Many have now served 30 or 40 years or more and have made admirable progress to demonstrate their maturity and rehabilitation. Yet, no “juvenile lifer” has been paroled in the last two decades. This is so in part because Maryland is one of only three states in the country that requires the Governor to personally approve parole for any lifer, a rule that has politicized parole, entrenched barriers to release, and deprived deserving individuals of meaningful consideration for release.
“For decades, Maryland has denied any hope of release to juvenile lifers who have matured, who have done everything within their power to reform and to demonstrate their rehabilitation, and who the Constitution says deserve a second chance at life outside prison walls,” said Sonia Kumar of the ACLU of Maryland. “This second chance — this hope of redemption that the decisions of the Supreme Court promise young people — is all our clients ask. ”
One of the plaintiffs in the case, Nathaniel Foster, was given a mandatory life sentence in 1983 at the age of 17, for his involvement in a failed robbery attempt despite having no prior criminal record. At the time he had graduated from high school and was preparing to enroll in college. At sentencing, the judge in his case said he had no latitude to impose any other sentence. Mr. Foster is now 50 years old. He has never had a violent infraction during his entire, three-plus decades of incarceration, has earned stellar reviews as an employee from his supervisors, and has served as a mentor and volunteer providing hospice services to ailing prisoners. Despite his longstanding and extraordinary track record, as a result of Maryland’s dysfunctional parole scheme, Mr. Foster has never been recommended for parole.
“I helped raise Nathaniel and now I feel so powerless, because it seems like he’s never going to get out,” said Brenda Allen, Nathaniel Foster’s aunt, who is a former parole officer. “He has worked so hard. I wish people would look at the kinds of things he’s accomplished. I don’t know what else Nathaniel can do to prove he’s ready to return to society. I’m sorry for what happened. But he was just a kid himself.”
“We are not asking for anything more than the law and basic fairness require,” said Walter Lomax, Executive Director of MRJI and a former lifer himself. “The men and women of MRJI who were sentenced as juveniles are not who they were decades ago. They have progressed and matured and deserve meaningful consideration for parole, not a system in which no one is paroled regardless of his or her merit.”
The plaintiffs are represented by pro bono attorneys Barry Fleishman and Jamie Brown of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP and ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon and Staff Attorney Sonia Kumar.
Go to the ACLU of Maryland website to download the complaint and learn more: http://aclu-md.org/
Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.
The Latest in Smart Justice
The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.