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The Maryland Parole Commission says its plans to hold hearings within the next year for nearly 300 inmates who were sentenced to life for crimes they committed as juveniles.

The state’s plan is contained in new court filings in a lawsuit alleging that Maryland’s parole system is unconstitutional because juvenile lifers have not had a realistic opportunity to be released. In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed last week, attorneys for the state contend that the suit should be thrown out because of the planned hearings and other changes.

They point to new regulations, set to take effect Oct. 24, that say the parole commission will consider a variety of factors for determining whether to release people on parole if they were a juvenile at the time of the offense. Among them are their level of maturity when the crime happened, whether others pressured them, and their home environment and family relationships at the time.

The ACLU of Maryland sued Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and other state officials in April, alleging that Maryland’s parole system for juveniles sentenced to life violates the Constitution.

An attorney for the ACLU called the state’s plan to hold the new hearings a “red herring.”

“From our perspective, it’s a fairly obvious attempt to offer superficial changes,” said Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “The question has never been whether or not people get hearings. It’s about whether those hearings serve any meaningful purpose.”

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative and three state inmates serving life sentences for crimes they were convicted of as teens.

Their lawsuit points to U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have found that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional except in rare cases. Although Maryland does not have mandatory life-without-parole sentences, the lawsuit says juvenile lifers in the state do not have a meaningful opportunity for release.

Maryland’s parole system requires the governor to sign off on paroling a person who is sentenced to life. The governor does not have to grant parole, even if recommended by the parole commission.

According to the lawsuit, before the mid-1990s, governors regularly approved the commission’s parole recommendations for lifers. But when Gov. Parris N. Glendening took office, he said he would not parole those sentenced to life. Since then, no juvenile lifer has been paroled, the lawsuit says.

Attorneys for the state say in court filings that governors since Glendening have reduced sentences for several people sentenced to life for crimes committed as juveniles.

Activists who want changes in the parole system have pressed for years to remove the governor from the process, saying that politics should be taken out of the equation. Maryland is one of three states in which the governor has final say on a parole recommendation for someone serving a life sentence.

About 270 inmates will be eligible for the new hearings, corrections officials said.

“We believe this resolves the concerns regarding parole consideration for offenders who were juveniles when they committed their crimes,” Gerry Shields, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in an email to the Baltimore Sun. “It meets the requirements set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court to provide those offenders with the opportunity to be considered for parole.”

People serving life sentences typically have a parole hearing after about 11  1 /2 years, Shields said. It is then up to the commission to decide when the inmate will be considered again for parole.

This summer, the corrections department said inmates serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles will now be considered for work-release programs in the community, which wasn’t previously allowed.

Attorneys can’t represent inmates at parole hearings, said James Johnston, head of the Maryland Youth Resentencing Project in the state’s Office of the Public Defender. The office is challenging life sentences for juveniles in cases throughout the state.

Johnston called the planned changes “a small step” and said more needs to be done to ensure that the state complies with Supreme Court rulings on juvenile sentencing.

“The fact that parole regulations prevent lawyers from representing inmates at parole hearings and the total lack of any judicial oversight for parole decisions contributes to the constitutional violation,” Johnston said. “Reviewing close to 300 juvenile lifers for parole within a year is an enormous task, and doing so in a meaningful way that actually serves to identify those inmates who should be released is even more of a challenge.”

Many of the inmates who will get these hearings have been in prison for decades, Johnston said.

Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, said he hopes the state will try to contact victims’ family members about the hearings. The inmates have been convicted of crimes including rape and murder.

In Maryland, only a victim or survivor of a victim of certain crimes can request an open parole hearing.

“There were no victim laws when a lot of these offenses took place,” Butler said. “If victims have never been told about their rights, how are they going be able to know to request an open hearing, where they can be present and where they can be heard, if no one ever told them their rights?”

Shields said the state “will conduct a very aggressive search for any victim family members, no matter how long ago the crime occurred.”

Inmates sentenced to life meet with two parole commissioners to be considered for parole. If both commissioners determine that someone could be a candidate for parole, Shields said, the prisoner will be referred to a psychologist for a risk assessment.

The commission holds about 11,500 parole hearings a year, he said.

— The Baltimore Sun