ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Larry Hogan has come out against legislation that would take parole decisions for life-sentenced inmates away from the state’s chief executive and leave the determinations solely with the Parole Commission.
Supporters of the measure call it necessary because Maryland governors from both parties have bowed to political pressure and went for nearly 25 years without adopting any Parole Commission recommendation to release a prisoner sentenced to life in prison.
But in a letter to legislative committee leaders late Tuesday, Hogan’s chief legal counsel noted the governor, who took office in January 2015, ended that drought by granting non-medical parole to two individuals who were serving life sentences, as well as commuted four life sentences.
Robert F. Scholz added that removing from governors the final decision on paroling lifers would ill-serve the public by removing accountability.
“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,” 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.”
The Parole 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.
Sen. Michael J. Hough, at a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing on the bill Wednesday, said Hogan appears to be above the law-and-order politics that concern the bill’s supporters and might have driven prior governors to deny parole recommendations for lifers.
“Hogan seems to be looking at them all,” said Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll, referring to the commission’s parole recommendations.
Brian Saccenti, chief of the public defender’s appellate division, urged the Senate panel to approve the legislation, saying governors have too often rejected parole recommendations for elderly inmates serving life sentences.
“This is not a population that poses a risk to public safety,” Saccenti said.
Echoing that theme, retired Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Philip T. Caroom voiced support for the bill by saying that “the Division of Corrections is becoming a nursing home.”
But Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger told the Senate panel that governors should retain the final say regarding parole for lifers, because the chief executives — and not the Parole Commission — are accountable to the voters.
Shellenberger also urged the senators to remember the victims as the legislators consider the rights of inmates up for parole.
“I believe in second chances,” Shellenberger said. “[But] not one victim gets a second chance.”
‘No reasonable justification’
The legislation has died in each of the past two years in both the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the House Judiciary Committee. The bill’s reintroduction this year was accompanied by a news conference Tuesday led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the ACLU chapter, said both Democratic and Republican governors have refused to grant parole to those sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
“This isn’t about one governor,” Kumar said Tuesday. “This is about a systemic defect in our system.”
But Scholz, in his letter, defended the system while representing his client.
“Governor Hogan takes his executive clemency responsibility very seriously,” Scholz wrote. “There is no reasonable justification for removing gubernatorial oversight from the parole process at this point given the diligent and proper consideration that Governor Hogan has given these matters.”
The legislation is pending in the Senate as Senate Bill 694. Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore City, is the chief sponsor.
Del. Pamela E. Queen, D-Montgomery, is chief sponsor of the cross-filed House Bill 723.