Does a Juvenile Lifer in Maryland Have a Right to Counsel at a Parole Hearing?

In 2002, Michael Farmer pled guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. He was 17 at the time, and was subsequently sentenced to two consecutive life sentences with the possibility of parole. He was thus classified as a “juvenile lifer.” Now, 20 years later, he is arguing that he has the right to a meaningful opportunity for release based upon his maturity and rehabilitation. On January 6, 2022, the Maryland Court of Appeals heard arguments about whether the right to an attorney at a juvenile lifer’s parole hearing is a necessary component of this meaningful opportunity for release. The state’s highest court is expected to issue its opinion on Farmer v. State in the coming months.

An individual who is eligible for parole has their case decided by the Maryland Parole Commission. If they have the resources, they can consult with an attorney to help them through this process, but as the law currently stands, an attorney is neither guaranteed nor permitted to appear at the parole hearing itself.
At a parole hearing, the Commission conducts an interview with the individual and asks a series of questions regarding the circumstances of the offense, their progress during confinement, their future plans, and other relevant factors determining their suitability for release. The Commission may also consider additional information, such as risk assessments or victim impact statements.

Preparing for a parole hearing can be difficult, and this is especially true for juvenile lifers. These individuals were sentenced as minors, have spent the majority of their lives in prison, and are ill-equipped to face the complicated and high-stakes parole process alone. When a denial means the possibility of imprisonment until death, a parole hearing demands a great deal of preparation. The juvenile lifer must adequately show that they have matured and rehabilitated during their confinement. For this reason, Farmer argues that the right to counsel should be extended to parole hearings. Juvenile lifers should be provided with an attorney who can present an explanation of why they are eligible for release and any supporting witness testimony. Additionally, counsel should be allowed to be present at the parole hearing to help facilitate the offender’s interview and to better explain their personal growth. According to Farmer, counsel provides the “best protection against the worst possible outcome” – referring to the possibility that someone who is matured and rehabilitated continues to spend the rest of their life in prison. During oral arguments, one of the judges questioned why, despite now being an adult, the defendant is still tied to their status as a juvenile at the time of sentencing. Farmer responded that it is only juvenile lifers whose eligibility for parole is assessed on a consideration of demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation, as decided by the Maryland Court of Appeals in Carter v. State in 2018.

While the Commission is required to give honest consideration to the information presented, it is not responsible for reviewing or providing a different interpretation of the generated risk assessment, or drafting a parole packet that will help outline the defendant’s plans upon release. Farmer emphasized that the Parole Commission is not the equivalent of an advocate; only a trained attorney can adequately navigate the complex parole process. A person who has spent the majority of their life in prison needs assistance to compile, process, and present the unique facts that demonstrate their maturation, rehabilitation, and overall eligibility for release. Incarcerated people deserve someone who can advocate for them at this critical stage in order to have the best possible opportunity for release.

The State argued that there are already sufficient procedural safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of the parole process, such as the requirement that the Commission consider relevant factors, including the individual’s age and home environment at the time of the offense and their character development. The State also contended that a parole hearing is not a juvenile lifer’s only option for relief. Maryland’s Juvenile Restoration Act, which came into law in October 2021, gives defendants a meaningful opportunity for release by allowing circuit courts to reduce sentences for qualifying individuals who were sentenced as minors. Furthermore, if defendants go through the parole process but are denied, they can bring the issue up again by petitioning for a re-hearing, administrative mandamus, or habeas review. Finally, the State insisted that the right to counsel is a policy issue that should be left to the legislature, and the present case was not the proper vehicle for bringing forward this asserted right.

Project 6 believes that expanding the right to counsel to parole hearings is an important and necessary step in criminal justice reform. It is the best way to ensure that those who are eligible for release do not suffer disproportionately long sentences for crimes that they committed when they were minors. The parole process is complex and not easily navigable, especially for someone who has spent the majority of their life in prison. Representation at the parole hearing is the best way to ensure that these people do not die in prison.

— Monika Scherer, Project 6