ANNAPOLIS — A bill before the Maryland legislature would give more than 2,000 prisoners serving life sentences a shorter path to parole by removing the governor from the decision-making process.
Activists spoke Thursday in a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee for and against a bill sponsored by Senator Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore, that would allow the state’s parole commission to have the final say in granting parole to “lifers.”
Currently, the Maryland Parole Commission can recommend parole for prisoners serving parole-eligible life sentences. A separate review board serves the same function within the Patuxent Institution, a correctional mental health center.
But the ultimate judgment of a parole recommendation rests with the governor — and state executives have not been willing to grant parole in the recent past. No prisoner serving a life sentence in Maryland has received parole since the administration of William Donald Schaefer, governor from 1987 to 1995, according to a joint Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative-American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland report. A few lifers have been granted medical parole, which is reserved for prisoners who are “imminently terminal” or have certain medical conditions.
This state is one of three whose governors have the authority to grant or deny parole for lifers.
Walter Lomax, founder and director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, said the parole process should be trusted to parole boards rather than politicians.
“The parole commission take an extremely extremely thorough process before they make the recommendation for someone … to be released on parole,” Lomax said. “We’re just asking that they be given a meaningful opportunity to be released, and not that be decided on who’s in political office and which way the pendulum is swinging at the time.”
The Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative-American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland report found that “(a)bout 2,100 people are serving parole-eligible life sentences in Maryland” — about one-tenth of the prisoners in the state, at a cost of about $38,000 per inmate per year. More than 340 of the parole-eligible lifers were doing time for crimes they committed when they were younger than 18. At the end of fiscal 2013, there were 2,465 people serving life sentences in the state, according to the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Some lifers have been released in recent years, without gubernatorial approval, because of a 2012 state Court of Appeals decision in Unger v. Maryland, which ordered retrials for many people who were improperly tried in the 1970s. More than 80 prisoners were freed, including at least 17 for whom former Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, denied parole in 2012.
Two “Unger” releasees testified at the committee hearing Thursday.
“This is not about me; it’s about the other 2,000 individuals that are still incarcerated because of the politics of it,” said Stanley Mitchell, who said parole boards did not recommend him for parole in 1991 and 2012 in order to avoid a governor’s denial. Incarcerated for felony murder, he spent nearly 35 years behind bars before he was released in June 2013.
Mitchell emphasized the advanced age of many lifers — the average Unger releasee was 64 years old — and the fiscal cost of holding a prisoner.
“It’s nothing but a bunch of old men just sitting around wasting your money,” he told the committee.
Most Marylanders serving parole-eligible life sentences are eligible for parole after 15 years. Prisoners convicted of first-degree murder must serve 25 years before they can be considered for parole.
Opponents of the bill spoke about the grievous crimes lifers have committed and argued that the governor is a more accountable decider than the commission, whose members are appointed by the Secretary of Public Safety & Correctional Services with the governor’s approval and the Senate’s advice and consent.
“Not one person who testified used the most important word in the criminal justice system, and that is victim,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who reminded the committee of the three ways to get a life sentence: “First-degree murder, first-degree rape and first-degree sex offense.”
“This isn’t about politics,” Shellenberger said. “This is about the person who’s making the decisions about the worst people in our criminal justice system — who makes the decision as to whether they will walk amongst us again — being someone who’s accountable to the citizens of this state.”
Hal Riedl, a former Division of Correction employee who worked on parole revocation hearings, said the parole commission cannot be trusted to determine which prisoners will not commit additional crimes if released.
“If you pass this bill, you’re going to be playing Russian roulette with public safety,” Riedl said. “Of the 10 members of the current parole commission, only two had any public safety experience before they were appointed to the commission.”
The General Assembly has already passed legislation to stop governors from simply ignoring parole recommendations. A 2011 rule gave the governor 180 days to deny a parole request, or else the prisoner would be granted parole. However, O’Malley responded by denying all pending recommendations, according to the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative-American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland report.
The report also called out the state’s prison system as racially biased, with black people serving 77 percent of life sentences despite making up only about 30 percent of the state’s population.
Lomax stressed that the state’s parole system should be of concern to all Marylanders, adding that Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, acknowledged the issue during his campaign.
“It doesn’t just address who’s a Democrat or who’s a Republican or who’s black or who’s white,” Lomax said. “It is a policy in the system that has been broken.”