A bill that would remove the governor from the parole process is on a bumpy path through the Maryland Legislature, as both chambers have different versions of the bill that must be hammered out in just a few days.
SB0202, sponsored by Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore, has been passed through both the Senate and House chambers.
The original bill that was introduced into the Senate increased from 15 to 20 years the amount of time inmates who were sentenced to life in prison would need to serve before becoming eligible for parole.
This would also factor in diminution credits, which reduces the length of the sentence as a reward for good behavior.
SB0202 also repeals the requirement that parole for an inmate serving a life sentence must be approved by the governor, putting it in the control of a parole commission instead.
This bill would go into effect on Oct. 1, 2021.
Former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, D, wrote in a March 1 Washington Post opinion piece that his refusal to grant parole to any prisoner sentenced to life had been a mistake.
“(M)y statement in 1995 that ‘life means life’ was completely wrong,” Glendening wrote. “It meant that people whose sentences promised a chance at parole were denied it for decades, regardless of how thoroughly they worked to redeem themselves and make amends to those they harmed.”
If an inmate is sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime committed before Oct. 1, 2021, then the previous requirement of 15 years served before parole still applies.
The bill has received a lot of support from advocacy groups like the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Public Justice Center.
The provision to repeal the governor’s veto power over parole has received some pushback from the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth and Victim Services, which stated in their written testimony that “allowing the Governor to review the final recommendations of the Parole Commission is an important safeguard to releasing criminals.”
However, the Office of the Attorney General disagreed in their written testimony, stating that there are only two other states that give the governor this power.
“It is beyond dispute that Maryland Governors, dating back to 1995, have seldom approved parole for individuals serving life sentences,” the Office of the Attorney General wrote and submitted to the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Kelley in her testimony during the bill hearing on Feb. 3 stated that members of a parole commission are thoroughly vetted and have the time to research and go in depth on each case that they are given.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee altered the bill before passing it through the chamber in a series of amendments brought forward by the Senate Republicans.
The amendments withdrew consideration of diminution credits, so the inmate would now have to serve 20 years regardless of good behavior.
The revised bill specified that the parole commission needs a supermajority of six affirmative votes on a 10-member parole commission in order to grant parole, changing the section of the bill that states parole can be granted by a two-person commission panel.
With these amendments adopted, SB0202 passed out of the Senate on March 22, and moved to the opposite chamber.
In the House of Delegates, the Judiciary Committee adopted an amendment that strikes the changes the Senate made, and returns the bill to its original form.
Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore, said during the Judiciary Committee voting session that the amendment “conforms SB0202 to the form in which it left the House,” referring to HB3, the cross-filed House bill. Clippinger, who sponsored that legislation, is the committee chair. It moved to the Senate on March 4.
The Senate voted not to concur with the changes the House made to SB0202, and asked the House to withdraw the amendments.
The House refused during the session on Monday.
Sen. Michael Hough, R-Frederick, last week called returning the bill to its original form “outrageous” and said that they were trying to strike “the most common sense amendment” that six affirmative votes are needed to grant parole.
The bill will now be deliberated in a conference committee, where three representatives from each chamber meet and discuss the amendments.
The Senate appointed Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery, and Hough to the conference committee, and the House appointed Clippinger, Del. Nicole Williams, D-Prince George’s, and Del. Michael Malone, R-Anne Arundel.
If a compromise cannot be reached, then the bill will not move forward.
State lawmakers have been trying to get this legislation passed for several years.
Similar legislation was introduced in the 2020 Maryland General Assembly session, but did not move forward because the session was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kelley told Capital News Service that she has been working on this legislation for seven years and that despite the bills not being aligned now “things are not over yet.”
The conference committee has not submitted a report yet for SB0202 and committee meetings are not required to be publicly scheduled.
The 2021 Maryland General Assembly session ends on April 12.