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Editor's Note: In the anchor introduction of this story, we incorrectly stated that sentencing guidelines hadn’t changed in the state of Maryland. In fact, Maryland did change some of its sentencing guidelines in 2016, but not those related to the former juveniles sentenced to life in our story. We regret the error.
Nearly a year ago, President Trump signed a bipartisan federal criminal justice reform bill that reduced mandatory sentences. Many states followed suit -- but not Maryland. In collaboration with the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, John Yang reports on the uncertain fate of prisoners who are still serving life sentences for crimes they committed as minors.
It was almost a year ago when President Trump signed into law a bipartisan federal criminal justice reform bill that reduced mandatory sentences.
Many states followed suit, with a notable exception, the state of Maryland.
In this story, produced in collaboration with the University of Maryland's Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, national correspondent John Yang reports on the uncertain fate of prisoners who are still serving life sentences for crimes they committed as minors.
In the 1990s, fear and anger over violent crime led to a sharp increase in incarceration. That included sentencing large numbers of juveniles to life in adult prisons without parole.
In 2012, the Supreme Court declared that cruel and unusual punishment, but, in Maryland, so-called juvenile lifers now in their 50s and 60s still wait for parole.
Earl Young had been sentenced to life at age 17.
The system is broke. The system needs fixing. And one individual, Mr. Parris Glendening, was the head of this situation.
Parris Glendening was Maryland's liberal Democratic governor. During his first campaign in 1994, he sought to counter attacks that he was soft on crime.
We must stop the slaughter that is going on in our communities. I support putting violent offenders in prison and giving what I call truth in sentencing. If you are sentenced to life in prison, it ought to mean life in prison, and not 11 years, the way it does today.
In 1994, Earl Young had served nine years for first-degree murder in a robbery gone wrong.
Tell me what it was like as a 17-year-old to go into a maximum security prison.
Hard. I went into the Maryland Penitentiary with some of society's — supposedly, some of society's worst of the worst.
Were you scared?
His hope? The possibility of parole.
I felt optimistic because I applied myself. I kept steady employment. I stayed out of trouble to the best of my ability. My days were complete from the beginning to the end with all constructive things.
But after Glendening announced in 1995 he would no longer sign paroles, Young would remain in prison another 24 years.
More than 300 juvenile lifers sit in Maryland prisons, among them, 55-year-old Calvin McNeill, convicted at 17 of first-degree murder in a dice game turned violent. We spoke to him by phone.
I was sentenced to life, life with parole. That's been 38 years, three months and 10 days ago.
Every time I go up, they always say, keep doing what you doing and such and such, but we can't do anything right now because of what the governor said. And I have been stuck ever since.
Now Glendening sees things differently.
I made a mistake. It was a very bad mistake, in the sense that it impacted lots of people, it impacted subsequent administrations. But it was a mistake. And I think it is important to acknowledge.
Because of the governor's extraordinary power, that mistake had an outsized impact.
Maryland is fairly unique among states in giving the authority to parole someone serving a life sentence exclusively to the governor. In other states, it would be a parole board.
ACLU attorney Sonia Kumar is suing the state to restore a full parole system and allow these lifers a chance at release.
Maryland's system has been set up so that opportunities for release are almost like winning the lottery. It's unpredictable. It's rare. There are many more people who are arguably deserving of it than can ever get it.
The figures in the ACLU suit are striking. Before Glendening, four governors issued 181 parole orders over 25 years. In the next 23 years, starting with Glendening, just two paroles were issued, both by current Governor Larry Hogan, both adult lifers.
You are serving a sentence that is life with parole on paper, but, in practice, parole is really unattainable.
From his Baltimore office, Walter Lomax has organized lifers and their families as part of the ACLU lawsuit.
We became more politically astute, right? Individuals understood that this was a political issue, because the governor made that decision, based on politics.
Lomax had been imprisoned 38 years before it was established he had been wrongfully convicted. When Glendening said he would no longer sign paroles, Lomax's parole recommendation was sitting on the governor's desk.
I was one of those people. So, it was pretty demoralizing, yes.
He understands the perspective of victims' families.
My younger brother was murdered. And one of my grandsons was murdered in this city. And so I personally know the pain and anguish that family members feel for that loss.
Some of these men who've committed horrible crimes, and I look at them at this later point in their lives, and I see someone that's totally remorseful, that's totally different from the person that they were when they committed the crime.
I am 55 years old. I have to be a person that's crazy and out of his mind that has spent 30-something years in prison to go back out into society and do something crazy and come back to prison?
Earl Young's sentence was commuted this year by Governor Hogan. He now works as a mentor in the Baltimore school system, trying to discourage teens from repeating his mistakes.
How have you changed in those 34 years?
Impulsive behavior? Gone. Immature thinking? Gone. Putting others before myself? Absolutely.
Glendening now says the governor should be taken out of the process.
Of all the powers you want, to be involved in that kind of decision is not one of them. The issues are too emotional and too political to put it on the desk of someone who is going to turn around in a few months, a year, and run for election. And it almost asks for political decisions on something that shouldn't be political.
Yes, individuals have committed some serious crimes, but — and I say but — for those who are deserving of a second opportunity, what's the process? It has to be better than what we have.
Times may be changing. In recent weeks, Hogan has paroled the first three juvenile lifers in 24 years.
Young cherishes Hogan's letter telling him he would be a free man.
The best thing that I read during the course of my incarceration was the executive order with my name on it.
"Dear Mr. Young, I have accepted the recommendation of Maryland Parole Commission and ordered that your life sentence be conditionally commuted to life sentence with all but 49 years suspended. During most of your incarceration, you have served your sentence in exemplary fashion. You have chosen to be positive and a productive person. Please make the most of this second chance."
A second chance hundreds of juvenile lifers may never get.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Baltimore.
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John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
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