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Bill to strip Md. governor of final parole decision gets House hearing

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland governors must be stripped of the final say in parole decisions for life-sentenced inmates because the perceived political consequences of releasing a convicted killer has and will continue to make denial of release virtually certain in all cases, supporters of repeal legislation told a House of Delegates panel Thursday.

But opponents of the bill said leaving release decisions entirely to the appointed Parole Commission would ill-serve the public by removing accountability from the state’s top elected official.

The legislation, which would apply to both juvenile and adult offenders facing life in prison with the possibility of parole, has failed in the General Assembly the past three years.

The House Judiciary Committee’s consideration of the reform bill this year comes as federal and state courts are weighing the constitutionality of Maryland’s parole system to determine if it complies with Supreme Court’s precedent that juvenile offenders sentenced to life be afforded a “meaningful opportunity” for release based on their maturity and rehabilitation while in prison.

Supporters of the bill said 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.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who took office in January 2015, ended that drought by granting non-medical parole to two individuals who were serving life, as well commuting seven life sentences.

Sonia Kumar, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said removing the governor from the final say in parole decisions is essential for keeping politics – “the elephant in the room” – out of a legal process that should be based on whether a convict has been sufficiently rehabilitated and not how it would play with voters.

“We have a deeply politicized parole process,” Kumar told the House committee. “Maryland’s track record proves it.”

Walter Lomax, of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, said the gubernatorial fear of parole dates to the 1980s when George H.W. Bush’s winning presidential campaign assailed his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, for having endorsed a prison furlough program during which Willie Horton, a convicted murderer, raped a woman.

“The Willie Horton syndrome haunts us in the criminal justice system,” Lomax said. “Governors have been denying parole.”

Retired Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Philip T. Caroom called the parole-reform legislation a “truth in sentencing bill” because those sentenced to life with the possibility of parole will have a genuine chance for relief if political considerations are removed.

Accountability questions

But Hogan’s chief legal counsel, Robert F. Scholz, stated in letter to the committee the current system should remain in place as it leaves parole recommendations with the Parole Commission and the final decision to the governor, an elected official who can be held accountable by the voters.

That view was echoed by Del. Deborah C. Rey, R-St. Mary’s.

“The citizens can hold the governor accountable for these decisions,” Rey said during the bill hearing. “The governor is who the people will hold accountable.”

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.

Del. Pamela E. Queen, D-Montgomery, is chief sponsor of the measure, House Bill 846.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, is chief sponsor of the cross-filed Senate Bill 249 and vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Amid the pending legislation and court cases, Hogan last week signed an executive order stating he will give juvenile offenders serving life sentences a “meaningful opportunity for release” based on their demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation while in prison

In the federal court case, the ACLU of Maryland claims 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 of the governors’ historical reticence to grant parole.

U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander has allowed the ACLU of Maryland’s case to proceed toward trial on the claim that Maryland has violated the Eighth Amendment. Hollander said the inmates have sufficiently alleged that parole for juvenile lifers is illusory in the state.

The case, in settlement conference, is Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative et al. v. Gov. Larry Hogan et al., No. 1:16-cv-01021-ELH.

Meanwhile, Maryland’s top court is considering whether sentences of life with the opportunity for parole are illegal because the opportunity for parole is not true in the state. The Court of Appeals is expected to issue its decision in the three cases by Aug. 31.

The cases are Daniel Carter v. Maryland, James Bowie v. Maryland and Matthew McCullough v. Maryland, Nos. 54, 55 and 56 September Term 2017.

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