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Del. Curt Anderson says the Parole Commission should make the ‘ultimate decision’ about whether an eligible convict should be paroled. (File photo)

Lawmakers, ACLU back bill to strip governor of parole decisions

ANNAPOLIS — State legislators from Baltimore will introduce a bill to take parole decisions away from the governor, saying Maryland chief executives from both parties have bowed to political pressure and gone 20 years without adopting any Parole Commission recommendation to release a prisoner sentenced to life in prison.

Under the legislation, the commission’s recommendations to parole a life-sentenced prisoner would be binding and not reviewable by the governor, said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Del. Curt Anderson, both Democrats. Current law calls for the commission’s recommendation for release to stand unless rejected by the governor within 180 days.

Since 1995, no Maryland chief executive has accepted a recommendation for parole after a life sentence, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative stated in a report released Tuesday.

Outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley rejected about 80 parole recommendations for people serving life sentences during his eight years in office, the report stated.

An email request to O’Malley’s office for comment Tuesday — his last full day as governor — went unanswered.

Since 1995, Maryland governors have commuted eight life sentences, according to the report, “Still Blocking the Exit.”

McFadden said the legislation is needed because “politics comes in and says, ‘We’re not letting you out,’ That’s not right.”

The bill is about “allowing the parole board to do their job and take the politics out of it,” he said. Convicts recommended for parole have “paid their debt to society,” McFadden added.

Anderson said the Parole Commission should make the “ultimate decision” about whether a convict eligible for parole should be released.

The commission consists of 10 members appointed by the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services with the approval of the governor. Each commissioner serves a six-year term.

Walter Lomax, founder and director of the Restorative Justice Initiative, praised the proposed legislation.

“It removes politics from the process,” Lomax said. “We don’t think [parole] should be a political decision.”

ACLU of Maryland attorney Sonia Kumar, whose group endorses the bill, said convicts sentenced to life in prison with the opportunity for parole are now “functionally serving life without parole.” The legislation would give these convicts “a meaningful opportunity for release.”

The office of Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, who will be sworn in Wednesday, did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.

The ACLU and MRJI reported that Maryland spent $5.2 million from 2012-2014 to incarcerate the 68 people whom the commission recommended for parole but were denied by the governor since 2006. The average age of lifers recommended for but denied parole is 60, the report stated.

“There is no doubt that these men and women made tragic mistakes,” the report stated. “But they are not the same people they were when they came to prison.”

Stanley Mitchell, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for felony murder in the late 1970s, was denied parole by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening despite the commission’s recommendation.

Mitchell was released after 34 years in prison as a result of the Maryland high court’s May 2012 decision in Unger v. State. In Unger, the Court of Appeals said many trial judges up until 1980 had violated the due process rights of defendants by telling jurors that their instructions to them were “merely advisory.”

Mitchell, 66, urged the General Assembly to pass the bill that would strip governors of the authority to overturn the commission’s parole recommendations.

“You get recommended but you don’t get released depending on the governor,” Mitchell said at a news conference at which the report was released. “It’s definitely politics.”

But Glendening said politics played no role in deciding to reject parole recommendations.

Rather, the rejections were based on the then absence in Maryland law of a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, which he said was most appropriate for “horrendous criminals [who] should be separated from society.”

“It was the context of the times,” he said.

Rejecting parole recommendations for life-sentenced convicts was “a step taken at the time that moved us on a path to eventually eliminating the death penalty” in 2013, Glendening said. “Our efforts were to move away from the death penalty altogether.”

About Steve Lash

Steve Lash covers federal and Maryland appellate courts and the General Assembly’s judiciary committees for The Daily Record. He joined the newspaper in 2008 after spending nearly 20 years covering the U.S. Supreme Court and legal affairs for several publications, including the Houston Chronicle, Cox Newspapers, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and West’s Legal News. Lash, a graduate of American University’s Washington College of Law, is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court and Maryland bars.