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Lawsuit settlement changes Maryland parole system for those sentenced to life as juveniles

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Marylanders sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles have a meaningful chance at parole for the first time since the mid-1990s.

On Wednesday, the Maryland Board of Public Works approved a legal settlement that requires the Maryland Parole Commission, the Division of Correction and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to consider in parole requests how old someone was when they committed their offenses. The settlement also requires the state to improve transparency, giving parole candidates access to information used in decisions about their release, and reaffirms their right to written explanations about those rulings.

The new regulations are designed to remove controversial barriers to parole and encourage coordination between the prison system and parole commission to better prepare people as they return to society.

“Today’s settlement is a victory for those sentenced as children and their families, who have fought for recognition of their humanity for decades,” said Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.

Federal suit over Maryland’s life sentences for juveniles to move forward

The ACLU of Maryland filed a lawsuit in 2016 on behalf of three Maryland residents sentenced while juveniles to life with parole and the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, an organization that advocates on behalf of those serving long-term sentences.

They argued that Maryland’s parole system established in 1995 functionally denied opportunities for release to inmates with life sentences.

Maryland governors paroled between 25 and 92 lifers in their terms from 1969 to 1995. Paroles became rare after convicted murderer Rodney Stokes killed his girlfriend and committed suicide while on work release.

Two plaintiffs in the case have been released since they filed the suit, one through a commutation and another through a judge’s resentencing order. The third, Kenneth Tucker, is still behind bars.

“With the settlement, we are no longer held hostage. But more importantly, brothers are now excited about fighting for liberty,” Tucker said in a statement. “The case has established a movement behind the wall, a fever that cannot be contained.”

The settlement requires the parole commission and prison staff to make recommendations about whether a person should be released, practices that advocates for change in the system say stalled over the past decades. It also removes a regulation that banned lifers from getting transferred to detention facilities below medium-security to allow them the opportunity to gradually readjust to society.

Teens sentenced to life in prison say Maryland’s parole system is unconstitutional

The 2016 lawsuit also targeted the role of the governor in the parole system. Maryland is one of only three states that gives the governor, not the parole board, the final word to accept or reject parole applications.

The settlement stopped short of removing the governor’s control over parole decisions, but a bill to restore the final parole decision to the parole commission passed the House with a veto-proof majority last month. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee will vote on the legislation Thursday.

Hogan’s office and the Maryland Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.

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