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Senators weigh removing governor from the parole process

Bill would apply to lifers who have served 30 years

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland governors would be stripped of the final say in parole decisions for inmates sentenced to life who have served 30 years in prison, under legislation being considered by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Senate Bill 121 is designed to ensure due process for inmates by obviating the political risk a governor would run by releasing a convicted killer. Politicians’ fear of making a career-killing move makes denial of parole virtually certain in all cases – even 30 years after conviction, supporters of the measure told the committee Tuesday.

Opponents countered that leaving release decisions entirely to the appointed Parole Commission would ill serve justice by removing public accountability from the state’s top elected official.

Specifically, the bill would require the release of a life-sentenced inmate without gubernatorial approval if the commission decides to grant parole after the convict has served 30 years of his term. Current law leaves final approval with the governor whenever an inmate sentenced to life is eligible for parole.

But current law has resulted in governors’ denying parole to elderly or otherwise infirm lifers – at high cost to Maryland taxpayers — though these convicts would present no risk to public safety if released, said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, the bill’s chief sponsor.

Governors are loath to grant parole because they “obviously care about their future political aspirations,” said Kelley, D-Baltimore County.

Walter Lomax, of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, agreed that release of convicted killers even after 30 years is “a political liability” for any governor.

As a result, lifers who have been model prisoners and are now physically unable to threaten public safety remain “incarcerated for political concerns,” said Lomax, whose group advocates for parole reform.

Lomax told the committee that these inmates “should be given a meaningful opportunity to be released.”

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.

But Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger urged the committee to focus not on that statistic but on the crimes the first-degree murderers committed.

“Let’s remember what we’re talking about,” he said. “We’re talking about the worst of the worst.”

Continued Shellenberger: “Shouldn’t the person who makes this ultimate decision (regarding parole) be accountable to the public? Should not the governor have the right to say who walks amongst us?”

Regarding gubernatorial reticence to grant parole, Shellenberger said Gov. Larry Hogan had ended the quarter-century drought by granting non-medical parole to five and medical parole to three individuals serving life sentences. The governor has also commuted 11 life sentences since he took office in 2015, Shellenberger added.

“The system is currently working,” Shellenberger told the committee. “It wasn’t before. I candidly admit that.”

A similar bill is pending before the House Judiciary Committee. Del. Pam Queen, D-Montgomery, is the chief sponsor of House Bill 443.

A previous effort at parole reform has failed in the General Assembly for the past several years. That measure would have removed governors from having the final say in parole decisions for life-sentence inmates regardless of how many years a convict has served in prison.

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