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Senate bill would increase time before lifers are eligible for parole

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s chief local prosecutors pressed a Senate committee Tuesday to correct what they called a quirk in the state’s sentencing law that enables life-sentenced first-degree murderers or rapists to become eligible for parole after spending less time in prison than second-degree murderers must spend before they reach eligibility.

Under the law, convicts serving life sentences for having killed with premeditation or raped in the first degree become eligible for parole after serving 15 years (or 11 and a half with “good behavior” credits), while second-degree murderers sentenced to the statutory maximum of 40 years become eligible after 20 years, Caroline County State’s Attorney Joe Riley told the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Riley said on behalf of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association. “It isn’t logical.”

Riley testified in favor of legislation that would increase from 15 to 25 years the minimum prison time a life-sentenced killer or rapist would have to serve before becoming eligible for parole. If the measure – Senate Bill 36 — is enacted this session, the new sentencing structure would apply to those sentenced to life with the possibility of parole for crimes committed on or after Oct. 1, 2020.

Similar legislation introduced in 2019 on behalf of Gov. Larry Hogan died in the General Assembly.

Riley told the Senate panel of having to explain to the families of first-degree murder victims that the killers’ actual time in prison could be less than that of a second-degree murderer.

“The looks of anguish (on the families’ faces) are not something I have ever found particularly pleasant,” Riley said.

Sen. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll and chief sponsor of SB36, called the measure “a victim’s bill” because it would give family members an additional 10 years before they would be called to appear before the Maryland Parole Commission — and to relive the horror of their loved one’s death as they address whether his or her killer should be released.

“It drags the family back in,” Hough, a Judicial Proceedings Committee member, said of parole hearings.

The Maryland Public Defender’s Office told the Senate committee, without elaboration, that it is opposed to the bill extending the parole eligibility date of life-sentenced convicts.

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