Maryland Governor’s Involvement in the Parole Process Prevents Juvenile Lifers from Parole Approval

By Sandy Arce

Boy hold cage with eye sad and hopeless

Do juveniles sentenced to life in prison have a realistic opportunity for parole consideration in Maryland? Currently, more than three hundred juvenile lifers await their “meaningful opportunity” for consideration through the parole process but instead juvenile lives have been used as political pawns since 1995.[1] A juvenile lifer is a juvenile who is sentenced to a life in prison usually for a homicide conviction.

Maryland is one of three states that requires approval from the governor as part of the parole process.[2] In 1953, Maryland’s General Assembly gave the governor the sole power to approve parole for prisoners with life sentences.[3] The governor’s involvement in the parole process came into focus in 1993, when four inmates, who participated in a pre-release program, committed independent crimes that affected the platform for the upcoming Maryland gubernatorial race.[4] In 1995, Maryland’s Democratic Governor Parris Glendening removed the pre-release of all lifers in the correctional facilities with his famous quote “life means life.”[5]  This set the tone for the governors succeeding him.

In 1999, following Governor Glendening’s “life is life” policy, Lomax v. Warden challenged the governor’s lack of parole approvals.[6] In Lomax, Walter Lomax was serving a life sentence and went through nine parole hearings; while the Maryland Parole Commission (MPC) recommended him for parole twice, Governor Glendening denied him both times alongside other prisoners.[7] Lomax held that the Governor can use his discretion as he may without any guideline for consideration but the MPC must continue making parole considerations as required by the statutory guidelines.[8] From then, governors took the political stance of “tough on crime” by exerting their discretion to deny parole recommendations made by the MPC or allow the recommendations to sit on their desk endlessly without a decision.[9] In 2011, the Maryland legislature limited the Governor’s power by requiring decisions on parole recommendations within 180 days or the recommendation would be automatically approved.[10]

The Supreme Court has previously decided cases involving juveniles who are incarcerated for life.[11] In 2005, Roper v. Simmons held juveniles cannot be sentenced to the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause.[12] In 2010, Graham v. Florida did not allow juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide conviction under the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and usual punishment clause.[13]  The Court further held that there must be a “meaningful opportunity” to obtain release through parole “based on maturity and rehabilitation”.[14] In 2012, Miller v. Alabama decided that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole under the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment even for homicide offenses.[15] In 2016, Montgomery v. Louisiana declared that Miller’s decision applied retroactively to remove life without parole for juveniles.[16] 

In 2017, Carter v. State was filed requesting juvenile lifers are provided a meaningful opportunity for release based on their maturity and rehabilitation, per the Miller factors, in Maryland.[17] As pressure accumulated while awaiting a decision for Carter v. State, on February 9, 2018, Governor Hogan responded to the lawsuit by creating an executive order that required the governor to use the same MPC guidelines to make parole decisions and require a written decision, unlike before.[18] Later in 2018, the Maryland Court of Appeals in Carter v. State upheld the ruling in Miller that prohibits juveniles from being sentenced to life without parole for homicide but concluded that the current parole process, as amended by parole guidelines and an executive order, did not create de-facto life without parole to violate the Eight Amendment.[19] Most recently in the Fourth Circuit, Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative v. Hogan challenges the Governor’s state guidelines that essentially do not accomplish anything to change the de-facto life without parole that juvenile lifers face in Maryland.[20]

In 2019, after 24 years without parole approvals for juvenile lifers, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan directly approved parole for two juvenile lifers and for a third juvenile lifer, he allowed the time to expire without his signature, which statutorily becomes automatically approved.[21] In 2019, former Governor Glendening was interviewed about the governor’s role in the parole process and he admitted that he made a mistake in making his pronouncement about parole and he indicated that a governor should not be involved in that process.[22] After previously failed attempts, in January 2020, the Maryland Legislative Assembly again introduced bills that would remove the governor from the process. The House bill passed with a veto-proof majority, but amid COVID-19 concerns the legislative session ended early in March before the Senate version of the bill made it out of committee.[23]

For parole, lifers are eligible after serving fifteen years, but the governor’s requirement of making a decision on parole recommendations within 180 days applies to lifers who have served twenty-five years in a correctional facility.[24] An eligible lifer must go through the following steps in Maryland’s parole system to make it to the Governor’s desk: 1) an eligible lifer will have either a closed or open a parole hearing, where two commissioners must decide whether to make a recommendation for parole based on established guidelines; 2) the two commissioners must determine whether the lifer satisfies the requirements for parole and if they meet the guidelines, the commissioners will recommend a risk assessment; 3) the lifer has a risk assessment, which is a psychological test to evaluate their release risk; 4) MPC reviews the risk assessment and if they believe the lifer is a good candidate for parole, they will refer to an en banc review; and 5) if at the en banc hearing, most of the commissioners agree that parole is appropriate, MPC will send the recommendation for parole to the Governor. [25]  Lastly, the Governor reviews the MPC’s parole recommendations and makes a decision within six months, but if the time frame expires, then the parole recommendation is automatically approved.[26] If at any point parole is denied, the lifer will start again with another parole hearing to re-evaluate their parole candidacy.

The Eighth Amendment protects people from cruel and usual punishment.[27] Punishment must be proportionate to the crime and juveniles cannot receive a life sentence without parole. At the time a crime is committed, juveniles are not as culpable as adults due to their level of maturity and should not be considered morally irreprehensible.[28] Juvenile lifers are uniquely incarcerated in a criminal justice system that locks the gate and throws the key away. Juvenile lifers have a greater degree of rehabilitation because of brain developments they experience that allow them to improve decision making skills as they age. Also, as a society, the criminal justice system needs to focus on the rehabilitation of juveniles and instilling an opportunity for release as an incentive for rehabilitation, but the current flawed parole process does not permit that. Even though the current Maryland Parole system exists, it does not provide juvenile lifers a meaningful opportunity for release because it is not effective. MPC’s process for lifers is flawed because it is overly broad. Additionally, it leaves room for the misuse of discretion and tends to deny parole at extremely high rates. Even if a lifer does acquire an MPC recommendation for parole, the lifer’s parole is left at the discretion of a governor, who historically have “tough on crime” political stances and prioritize the possibility, however unlikely, that a decision granting parole may backfire. These political agendas and priorities do not provide a hope or incentive that release is attainable for lifers. The fact that only three juvenile lifers have been paroled in over twenty-four years demonstrates the current system is easily misused in politics.[29] Carter’s reasoning that the low release rate for juvenile lifers does not negate a juvenile lifer’s accessibility to parole is incorrect.[30]  The facts demonstrate that the system does not release people who are suitable for re-entry in an adequate time frame.[31]  Thus, the Maryland Legislature needs to pass legislation that enables juvenile lifers an opportunity for release without the governor’s involvement.


[1] Hogan Issues First Paroles for Juvenile Lifers in Decades, NBC Washington, (Nov. 23, 2019), https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/hogan-issues-first-paroles-for-juvenile-lifers-in-decades/2154790/.

[2] Cal. Const. art. 5, § 8 (noting California’s statute that requires governor’s approval for parole); Okla. Const. art. 6, § 10 (indicating Oklahoma’s statute that gives power to the governor to decide parole).

[3] 1953 Md. Laws 1187 (indicating that prisoners with life sentences must serve fifteen years before being eligible for parole and the governor must approve parole for them to be released).

[4] Rachel A. Cohen, A GOP Governor has a Chance to Fix A Blue State’s Draconian Approach to Paroling Juvenile Offenders, The Intercept, (Dec. 10, 2018), https://theintercept.com/2018/12/10/larry-hogan-juvenile-offenders-parole/; Roger Twigg & William F. Zorzi Jr., Killer of woman, self was ‘model prisoner’ Another blow jolts prerelease system, Baltimore Sun, (June 3, 1993), https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1993-06-03-1993154003-story.html.

[5] Ann E. Marimow, Teens sentenced to life in prison say Maryland’s parole system is unconstitutional, Wash. Post, (Feb. 6. 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/teens-sentenced-to-life-in-prison-say-marylands-parole-system-is-unconstitutional/2018/02/06/91f2dc72-0ab5-11e8-8890-372e2047c935_story.html.

[6] Lomax v. Warden, 356 Md. 569, 578-581 (1999).

[7] Id. at 572-73.

[8] Id. at 578-81.

[9] Hannah Gaskill, 3 Serving Life Due To Juvenile Crimes To Be Paroled By Governor: Gov. Larry Hogan has issued the first paroles for juvenile lifers in nearly 25 years, Patch.com, (Nov. 23, 2019), https://patch.com/maryland/across-md/3-juveniles-serving-life-sentences-be-paroled-md-governor (noting that Governor Robert Ehrlich and Governor Martin O’Malley did not give parole to any lifers).

[10] Md. Code Ann., Corr. Servs. § 7-301(d)(5)(iii).

[11] Montgomery v. Louisiana,136 S. Ct. 718, 718 (2016); Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2455 (2012); Graham v. Florida, 130 S. CT. 2011, 2011 (2010); Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 551 (2005).

[12] Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 573-74 (2005).

[13] Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74 (2010).

[14] Id. at 75.

[15] Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 464 (2012).

[16] Montgomery v. Louisiana,136 S. Ct. 718, 724 (2016).

[17] Carter v. State, 192 A.3d 695, 701(Md. 2018).

[18] Gubernatorial Considerations in Parole of Inmates Serving Terms of Life Imprisonment, COMAR 01.01.2018.06 (Feb. 9, 2018).

[19] Carter,192 A.3d at 696 (Md. 2018).

[20] Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative et al. v. Hogan et al., No. 16–01021–ELH (D. Md. 2019); ACLU Maryland, “Juvenile Lifers” Challenge Constitutionality of Statute Granting Governor Boundless Discretion To Decide Their Fate In Parole, (June 28, 2018), https://www.aclu-md.org/en/press-releases/statement-governor-hogan-releasing-three-out-nearly-200-marylanders-considered-parole

[21] Kudos to Maryland’s Gov. Hogan for paroling three ‘juvenile lifers,’ but we wish he weren’t involved at all, Baltimore Sun, (Nov. 25, 2019), https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/editorial/bs-ed-1126-hogan-parole-20191125-l5qho76xnvbrjksif7x5446qqi-story.html. There were a few limited exceptions during the that period where lifers were released based on medical release, commutation and clemency. Hannah Gaskill, Maryland Gov. Hogan issues first paroles for juvenile lifers in decades, WTOP, (Nov. 23, 2019), https://wtop.com/maryland/2019/11/maryland-gov-hogan-issues-first-paroles-for-juvenile-lifers-in-decades/

[22] John Yang, In Maryland, many juvenile offenders languish in prison without parole, PBS, (Dec. 10, 2019), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/in-maryland-many-juvenile-offenders-languish-in-prison-without-parole.

[23] H.B. 300, 441st Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Md. 2020) (changing limiting the governor’s role in the parole process for certain sentences); Tyler Olson, Maryland lawmakers to end legislative session early due to coronavirus, Fox, (Mar. 15, 2019), https://www.foxnews.com/politics/maryland-democrats-plow-ahead-with-expensive-education-bill-as-legislative-session-may-end-early-due-to-coronavirus.

[24] Md. Code Ann., Corr. Servs. § 7-301(d)(5)(i).

[25] Md. Code Ann., Corr. Servs. § 7-307 (indicating two commissioners host the parole hearing and they must unanimously agree in approving parole); Still Blocking the Exit, ACLU Md. 7, (January 20, 2015), https://www.aclu-md.org/en/publications/still-blocking-exit (describing the parole process for lifers).

[26] Md. Code Ann., Corr. Servs. § 7-301(d)(5)(i).

[27] U.S. Const. amend. VIII.

[28] Miller, 567 U.S. at 472 (“We reasoned that those findings—of transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences—both lessened a child’s “moral culpability” and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his “ ‘deficiencies will be reformed.”).

[29] Graham v. Florida, 130 S. CT. 2011, 2032 (2010).

[30] Carter v. State, 461 Md. 295, 336, 345 (2018);

[31] Hogan Issues First Paroles for Juvenile Lifers in Decades, NBC Washington, (Nov. 23, 2019), https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/hogan-issues-first-paroles-for-juvenile-lifers-in-decades/2154790/ (noting three hundred juvenile lifers are currently in Maryland prisons and five were recently released).