ACLU: Life in prison for Maryland juveniles unconstitutional

Sentencing juveniles to life in prison in Maryland is unconstitutional because they don't have a meaningful chance at parole, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Young offenders don't get the second chance to which they're constitutionally entitled because no juveniles sentenced to life have been granted early release in the past 20 years, according to the lawsuit filed against Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and several officials in his administration in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The suit was filed on behalf of three defendants and the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. Hogan spokesman Matthew Clark said Wednesday that he had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit and did not immediately comment.

There are about 200 inmates serving life sentences in Maryland prisons with the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were younger than 18. Maryland is one of only three states that require the governor to approve parole for prisoner serving life.

"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.

Plaintiff Nathaniel Foster was sentenced in Baltimore to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 1983 after he took part in a botched robbery that resulted in a death when he was 17. Now 50, Foster has never been recommended for parole, despite mentoring fellow inmates and caring for sick and ailing prisoners. Foster has never been involved in a violent infraction, the suit says, and has earned glowing reviews from supervisors.

Walter Lomax, executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative and a former adult lifer who was convicted of murder and later exonerated after 38 years behind bars, said those 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."

A Baltimore County judge last month sentenced 17-year-old Latray Hughes, who killed a man during a home invasion in Dundalk, to life in prison. At his sentencing hearing, attorney James Johnston argued a life sentence with a chance for parole in Maryland effectively means a youthful offender will never be freed. As a result, Johnston said, a jury should decide whether a life sentence is an appropriate penalty.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as teenagers must be allowed to argue for their release from prison. The ruling expands the court's 2012 decision that said juveniles should not be treated the same as adults, cannot be sentenced to life without parole with the exception of cases that demonstrate "irreparable corruption," and must be given a chance at rehabilitation.

Johnston said a system that leaves final discretion to the governor is flawed, pointing to then-Gov. Parris Glendening's announcement outside a prison in 1995 that he'd refuse on principle to grant parole for prisoners convicted of murder or rape. He said that gives prosecutors an advantage because arguing for life in prison without parole is more difficult.

"If you get a life sentence, you're going to die in prison unless the governor lets you out, and not a single person has been released since the early 1990s," Johnston said.