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House panel hears bill to strip governor of parole decision

"We need to be targeting our resources better, and we need to target our resources at issues that matter most," says House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is the sponsor of a bill to strip the governor of the final say in parole decisions for people sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland governors would be stripped of the final say in parole decisions for inmates sentenced to life with the possibility of parole who have served 20 years in prison under legislation being considered by the House Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 1219 is designed to ensure these inmates have a meaningful opportunity for parole by obviating the political risk a governor would run by releasing a convicted killer, the measure’s supporters told the committee Tuesday. Politicians’ fear of making a career-killing move makes denial of parole virtually certain in all cases – even 20 years after conviction, the backers added.

“It’s an issue of fairness,” said House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore city and the bill’s chief sponsor. “(The convicts) were sentenced with the understanding that they would have the possibility of parole. We should stand up to our end of the bargain.”

Under HB 1219, the appointed Parole Commission would make the final decision regarding parole, rather than simply making a recommendation to the governor as the panel currently does.

In a letter of opposition, Gov. Larry Hogan’s office stated that the bill would improperly remove the state’s top elected official – who is directly accountable to Maryland residents – from the ultimate decision of whether to release a convicted killer.

“The governor’s oversight duty in the current system makes policy on these sensitive issues responsive to the people,” Hogan’s office wrote to the House committee. “One elected official is accountable to the voters for the parole of offenders who committed heinous murders and attempted murders. An appointed group such as the Parole Commission is less accountable for its exercise of such authority.”

Maryland governors from both parties have bowed to political pressure and went for nearly 25 years, before Hogan’s tenure, without adopting any Parole Commission recommendation to release an inmate sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Hogan’s office stated he has paroled 19 people who were serving life sentences, either by approving the commission’s recommendation or by letting it take effect after 180 days without his signature. Hogan has also commuted 21 life sentences, his office stated.

“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 office stated in written testimony.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, who also opposed the bill, said elected governors — not appointed parole commissioners — should have the final say on whether a first-degree murderer is released from prison.

“We are talking about the most heinous of crimes,” Shellenberger told the House committee. “Should the worst of the worst be back on our streets? What is the appropriate punishment?”

But Clippinger said the Parole Commission conducts rigorous investigations and is well-qualified to determine if an eligible convict should be paroled. Giving the governor the final say needlessly politicizes the process and does not advance public safety, Clippinger added.

Marc Schindler, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, praised Clippinger’s effort at reforming Maryland’s parole process.

“This is an opportunity to take the politics out of this issue,” Schindler told the House committee.

HB 1219 has been cross-filed in the Senate. Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery, is chief sponsor of Senate Bill 817.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is to hold a hearing on SB 817 on Thursday.

Legislation to remove the governor from parole decisions has failed in the General Assembly in each of the past few years.

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