Parole In The Hands Of Governors

In most states parole commissions decide who should be released. Only three require the governor to sign paroles. Each state has handled the court’s rulings differently.


Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

Maryland is one of only three states whose governors make the final decision on parole for people sentenced to life. The other two, Oklahoma and California, take very different paths.

Oklahoma state outline  OKLAHOMA

The Supreme Court’s ruling in 2016 that said all life-without-parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional has only minimally affected juvenile lifers in Oklahoma, where politicians have historically taken a tough stance on violent crime.

That year, according to Tim Laughlin of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, an estimated 43 Oklahomans were serving life-without-parole sentences for juvenile crimes. "It’s not all inclusive, but the ones we identified, at least initially, to the best of our abilities were about 43," Laughlin said.

The same year, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued new sentencing guidelines. Going forward, juries could not impose life-without-parole without finding "that the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible."

The Legislature attempted a reversal, passing a bill allowing judges to give juveniles life with no parole. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed it.

Oklahoma requires defendants to file proper paperwork to request a lawyer. Only with judicial appointment can public defenders represent defendants in criminal cases.

"Our statute doesn’t allow us to initiate post-conviction applications in non- death penalty cases," Laughlin said. "At this point, it’s incumbent on the individual to file a post-conviction application."

Those requirements have severely limited the number of resentencing cases. Only seven of the juvenile life-without-parole prisoners have been resentenced, according to Brianna Bailey of the Frontier. Most sentenced as juveniles still have life-without-parole sentences. Since 2016, neither of the two governors has paroled a juvenile lifer.

On Nov. 4, Oklahoma took one step toward prison reform. Faced with mounting costs and overcrowding, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt released 462 inmates incarcerated for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes. This did not affect juvenile lifers.

California state outline CALIFORNIA

While Maryland and Oklahoma have been slow to change juvenile parole procedures, California governors vowed to change theirs — and largely have.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown acted within months of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ban on mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. He signed Senate Bill 9 in January 2013, which allowed those sentenced to life without parole as juveniles to request new sentencing hearings.

In 2017, Gov. Brown signed Senate Bill 394, outlawing life-without-parole sentences and granting juvenile lifers the right to parole hearings 25 years after conviction.

Brown’s successor, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, went further, vowing in January 2019 to "end the juvenile justice system as we know it." He proposed moving the Division of Juvenile Justice from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and placing it under the Health and Human Services Agency.

"Juvenile justice should be about helping kids imagine and pursue new lives — not jumpstarting the revolving door of the criminal justice system," Newsom said. "The system should be helping these kids unpack trauma and adverse experiences many have suffered."

In March Newsom suspended executions for the duration of his tenure. In September he granted clemency to 21 violent offenders in California. Seven had been sentenced to life without parole. Clemency does not free them, but their cases now can be brought before the parole board.

Republicans criticized Newsom saying, "Where is the compassion for the crime victims and their families?"

Newsom’s office stated that the governor considered several factors, including "the circumstances of the crime and the sentence imposed, the applicant’s conduct while in prison and the applicant’s self-development efforts since the offense, including whether they have made use of available rehabilitative programs and addressed treatment needs."

READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s about-face

READ MORE: Michigan and Florida go different routes

READ MORE: Five Supreme Court decisions that changed sentencing for juveniles

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This work is a collaboration among the University of Maryland's Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service and the PBS NewsHour.


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