Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer//February 14, 2017
//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer
//February 14, 2017
ANNAPOLIS – Unwilling to wait for a federal court ruling, Democratic legislators have reintroduced legislation to take parole decisions away from the governor, saying Maryland chief executives from both parties have bowed to political pressure and gone more than 20 years without adopting any Parole Commission recommendation to release a prisoner sentenced to life in prison.
“We must have parole that is right and just,” Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s and a sponsor of Senate Bill 694, said Tuesday during a rally near the State House. “No governor should have this power.”
Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore City, said decisions regarding parole must be stripped of law-and-order politics and left to the commission that has evaluated the specific inmate – who has likely spent decades in prison – and concluded he or she is rehabilitated and can be a contributing member to society.
“Why should they languish in prison?” asked Anderson, a sponsor of House Bill 723. “Why have a political process be inserted in there?”
Under the legislation, the commission’s recommendation to parole a life-sentenced prisoner would be binding and not reviewable by the governor. Current law calls for the commission’s recommendation for release to stand unless rejected by the governor within 180 days.
Since 1995, no Maryland governor has accepted any of the scores of recommendations for parole after a life sentence, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which supports the legislation. Maryland governors have commuted 11 life sentences since 1995, according to data from the ACLU chapter and Gov. Larry Hogan’s office.
Sonia Kumar, an ACLU of Maryland attorney, said both Democratic and Republican governors have refused to grant parole to those sentenced in life in prison with the possibility of parole.
“This isn’t about one governor,” Kumar said. “This is about a systemic defect in our system.”
But Sen. H. Wayne Norman Jr., R-Cecil and Harford, assailed what he called a “terrible bill” for its effort to remove the state’s chief executive from parole decisions.
“Why is it appropriate to take the governor out of the loop?” asked Norman, who serves on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Hogan, via a letter from his chief legal counsel, expressed opposition to the legislation late Tuesday.
“The current system is beneficial because it assures that both the Parole Commission and the governor approve of the release of offenders with life sentences,” Robert F. Scholz, wrote in the letter to Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, and Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, who chair the Senate and House judiciary committees, respectively.
“It also forces the responsibility for final decision on one elected official who can be held accountable by the voters,” Scholz added. “Decisions made in group settings carry less accountability.”
David R. Blumberg, chair of the Parole Commission, said the panel has no position on the legislation.
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.
Introduction of the legislation – which has failed in the General Assembly the last two years – comes as the U.S. District Court in Baltimore considers the ACLU of Maryland’s claim that the state is unconstitutionally holding more than 200 juvenile offenders who are now adults under de facto sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole because the governors have historically not granted parole to lifers.
U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander this month rejected the Maryland attorney general’s motion to dismiss the case, saying the inmates have sufficiently alleged that parole for juvenile lifers is illusory in the state. Hollander allowed the convicts to proceed toward trial with their claim that Maryland has violated federal and state constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Notably, under the unambiguous text of Maryland law, Maryland’s governor possesses unfettered discretion to deny every parole recommendation for any reason whatsoever or for no reason at all,” Hollander wrote. “And, a system of executive clemency, which lacks governing standards, does not constitute a meaningful opportunity to obtain release for juvenile offenders.”
As the case proceeds, the juvenile offenders, now adults, will have to show the state has not provided them a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturing and rehabilitation,” Hollander said, quoting from U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
The judge has ordered Attorney General Brian E. Frosh to file by Feb. 28 the state’s answer to the ACLU’s claim.
The case is Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative et al. v. Gov. Larry Hogan et al., No. 1:16-cv-01021-ELH.