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Hogan issues executive order on juvenile offenders serving life sentences

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) issued an executive order on juvenile offenders serving life sentences (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Friday formalized his process for deciding whether to grant parole to inmates serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles.

The executive order comes as Hogan’s administration is facing legal and political pressure to overhaul the system, which has not paroled any juvenile offenders sentenced to life in more than 20 years.

“Since taking office, our administration has sought to bring balance to Maryland’s criminal justice system, which includes offering individuals who have paid their debt to society a second chance to live productive lives,” Hogan said in a statement announcing the order that codifies current practices into law.

“The policies that we have been following, which are now made law through this executive order, will help us achieve a proper balance between public safety and our administration’s goal of helping ex-offenders successfully reenter the community.”

This week, the state’s highest court considered a challenge to the legality of the state’s parole system. Meanwhile, state lawmakers are weighing bills to reform the system, including a measure that would remove the governor from the process.

Advocates, who were taken by surprise by the governor’s order, said Hogan’s action does not fix the problem and will have little effect on the inmates who are serving life sentences, particularly those who were sentenced as teenagers.

“This executive order changes nothing,” ACLU attorney Sonia Kumar said. “The order — which the governor could revoke at any time — is primarily hollow, self-serving language that doesn’t fix the long-standing constitutional deficiencies of Maryland’s parole scheme and simply reinforces the lack of any actual standard to ensure individuals who have demonstrated their rehabilitation are actually released.”

When considering parole for juvenile offenders, the governor will consider “lawful factors deemed relevant by the governor,” information provided by the parole commission, the offender’s age at the time of the crime and whether the offender has shown signs of maturity and rehabilitation. Under the order, the governor will also state the reason for opposing parole.

This week, judges on the Maryland Court of Appeals expressed concerns that no Maryland governor has signed off on a parole board recommendation to release a lifer who committed a crime before turning 18. While about a dozen states do not grant parole, Maryland, along with California and Oklahoma, are the only states that require the governor’s signature to parole inmates sentenced to life.

“The executive order does not remotely fix the problem,” Brian Saccenti, an assistant public defender who argued the case before the Court of Appeals, said in a prepared statement. “The fact that zero juvenile offenders have been paroled under this approach (or for the last 20 years) proves that it does not afford them a meaningful opportunity for release if they become rehabilitated.”

In a letter to state Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which is considering the bill to remove the governor from the process, Hogan’s legal counsel said the governor has approved two requests for parole and has commuted life sentences of seven inmates. Hogan opposes the legislation and Robert F. Scholz, his legal counsel, said there was no “reasonable justification to removing gubernatorial oversight,” which makes one elected official responsible for the decisions.

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the timing of the executive order had nothing to do with the legal challenge from the ACLU.