Inmates serving life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles face an “underfunctioning” parole system, a judge on Maryland’s high court said. (Dan Morse/TWP/Dan Morse/TWP)

Judges on Maryland’s highest court expressed concern Tuesday that the state’s parole system has not released for two decades any inmates sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as teenagers.

A central question for the Maryland Court of Appeals is whether a young person can be sentenced to life without what prison reform advocates say is any realistic chance of release. The cases follow several Supreme Court rulings that distinguish between adult and juvenile offenders, who the court says are not as culpable and have a “heightened capacity for change.”

The high court in 2016 prohibited mandatory life sentences for juveniles without parole and has said young offenders must have a “meaningful” chance to show they have matured and to be released.

“Do we have that here?” Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera asked the state government’s lawyer during oral argument in Annapolis on Tuesday. “How so? Doesn’t the data suggest the opposite.”

Separately, Judge Sally D. Adkins said, “Our system is underfunctioning at the very least.”

In response, the government’s lawyer from the office of Attorney General Brian Frosh acknowledged possible flaws in the parole system but emphasized that the individual life sentences being challenged are legal. Any fixes to the overall system should come from the legislature, assistant attorney general Robert Taylor said, not the courts.


Maryland state Sen. Delores Kelley (D) shows a page of people serving life terms during a news conference organized Thursday in part by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland in support of legislation to remove the governor from the parole process for people serving life in prison. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Maryland, along with California and Oklahoma, are the only states that require the governor’s signature to parole inmates sentenced to life. In the last two decades, no Maryland governor has signed off on a parole board recommendation to release a lifer who committed a crime before turning 18.

Proposals to remove the governor from the parole process, including legislation introduced again this session, have been blocked for years.

“Is it underfunctioning?” Taylor said in response to Adkins’ question. “It’s a discretionary process . . . We’ve had different governors.”

To which the judge replied, “It has become a political question. Not a question of whether a juvenile has been able to rehabilitate himself.”

A decision from the seven-member court, which must rule by August, could affect an estimated 300 inmates. Even the judges who expressed concern about the parole system wrestled with what role the court should play.

“Can this court do anything more” than send the cases back to a lower court for resentencing, asked Judge Clayton Greene.

The four cases before the appeals court involve crimes committed by teenagers who are now serving life and in one case a term of 100 years: a 1989 home invasion in Prince George’s County that resulted in three deaths; a drug-fueled attack with a baseball bat in 1995 that severely injured a Charles County man; a 1998 murder in Baltimore; and a 2004 shooting outside Randallstown High School that paralyzed a student.

Inmates with life sentences with the possibility of parole must serve at least 15 years before being considered for release. Parole commissioners, appointed by the governor, review records, notify victims and interview the prisoner before making a recommendation to the governor, who must act within 180 days.

In the case of James E. Bowie, who beat and robbed a La Plata fisherman in 1995, lawyers have asked the court to get rid of his life term and order a new sentencing hearing consistent with the Supreme Court’s rulings.

Judges Adkins and Shirley M. Watts pointed out that state regulations put in place after the high court decisions already require parole commissioners to consider factors such as maturity and rehabilitation.

Assistant public defender Brian M. Saccenti told the court that “consideration is not enough” when the parole system has repeatedly denied inmates a “meaningful” chance for release even when they have done everything possible to turn their lives around while behind bars.

The court, he said, should send a message that “these sentences are illegal unless the juvenile has a real way to get out and rejoin society . . . Clearly they don’t have that now.”

The number of lifers paroled in Maryland dropped dramatically starting in 1995, court records show, when then-governor Parris N. Glendening announced he would not grant parole in life-term cases, saying, “A life sentence means life.”

More recently, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has approved parole for two people sentenced to life as adults. He and other governors since Glendening have also used separate clemency powers to reduce prison sentences and bring early release for a small number of lifers.

But reform advocates say acts based on a governor’s discretion do not fix an unconstitutional life sentence or the parole system.