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Delegates weigh bill extending lifers’ parole eligibility

Steve Lash//February 26, 2019

Delegates weigh bill extending lifers’ parole eligibility

By Steve Lash

//February 26, 2019

Gov. Larry Hogan xxxx (File photo)
Gov. Larry Hogan was behind the introduction of a measure to lengthen the period a criminal sentenced to life in prison must serve before becoming for eligible for parole. (File photo)

ANNAPOLIS – A criminal sentenced to life in prison in Maryland would have to serve at least 25 years before becoming eligible for parole – more than a decade longer than the current 11-and-a-half-year minimum – under legislation that came before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The measure to extend the time for parole eligibility, House Bill 719, was introduced at Gov. Larry Hogan’s behest. Under Maryland law, governors have the final say in whether an inmate will be paroled.

Speaking in support of the bill, Hogan aide Cara Sullivan told the committee that those convicted of crimes “heinous enough to qualify for life sentence” should not be eligible for parole for at least 25 years.

Under current law, lifers generally become eligible for parole at 15 years, but with “good behavior” credits they can become eligible after just 11 and a half years, which, Sullivan said, is too soon for those found guilty of first-degree murder or first-degree rape.

She noted that crime victims and their families are called to testify at parole hearings about the pain the crime has caused them.

“Having a hearing so soon … victimizes the victim’s family … all over again,” Sullivan said of the current law’s parole eligibility timeframe. “This is not fair or just to the victims.”

The legislation’s 25-year minimum would be irreducible by good behavior credits.

Increasing the minimum for parole eligibility from 11 and a half to 25 years would also correct an inequity in the law that treats first-degree murder less severely than second-degree murder, Sullivan said. Second-degree murderers, who are sentenced to 40 years in prison, become eligible for parole after 20 years, as opposed to 15 years for those convicted of first-degree murder.

A 25-year minimum for first-degree murder would thus create equity between the crimes, Sullivan said.

Attorney Kurt Wolfgang, of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, also endorsed the bill, citing the psychological damage to family members who testify at parole hearings.

“Crime victims are assailed by the process,” he told the committee.

But Del. Wanika Fisher, a committee member, said an increase in the time for parole eligibility should be coupled with passage of pending legislation to remove the governor from having the final say in parole decisions. Historically, governors have been loath to grant parole to convicts serving life, said Fisher, D-Prince George’s. She added that grants of early release are “not a reality” in Maryland.

Sullivan responded that popularly elected governors should have the final say because they are answerable to the residents of Maryland, as opposed to the appointed members of the Parole Commission. She added that Hogan, unlike his three immediate predecessors, has granted parole to lifers.

Specifically, Hogan has granted non-medical parole to five people and medical parole to three individuals serving life sentences. The governor has also commuted 11 life sentences since he took office in 2015, according to testimony that Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger provided this month to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The Senate version of the parole-eligibility measure, Senate Bill 874, is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on March 12.


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