Maryland governors would be stripped of the final say in parole decisions for inmates sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after having served at least 17 years in prison under legislation being considered by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Senate Bill 202 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 Wednesday. Politicians’ fear of making a career-killing move makes denial of parole virtually certain in all cases, the backers added.
“Governors are acting … based on what their next race will look like,” said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, the bill’s chief sponsor. “When we elect a governor, we are not electing him to make this decision.”
Under SB 202, the appointed Parole Commission would make the final decision regarding parole, rather than simply making a recommendation to the governor as the 10-member panel currently does.
The bill would also raise from about 15 to 20 the number of years a life-sentenced inmate would have to serve before becoming eligible for parole, though that time could be reduced to 17 years with sufficient diminution credits for good behavior.
In a letter opposing the bill, Gov. Larry Hogan’s office said the measure 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 Senate 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 than the governor.”
The House of Delegates passed similar parole-reform legislation last year on vote of 89-38. But the pandemic-shortened 2020 General Assembly session ended before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee considered House Bill 1219.
The legislation’s consideration follows a history of Maryland governors bowing to political pressure.
The state’s chief executives went nearly 25 years, before Hogan’s tenure began in 2015, 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 26 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 22 life sentences, his office stated.
But Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., the Senate committee’s chair, said Hogan’s willingness to grant parole in contrast to his predecessors illustrates the need to leave the ultimate decision with the Parole Commission, which has defined standards of review, and not the governors.
“There is no standard process” for governors, said Smith, a cosponsor of the bill. “It could change from administration to administration.”
But Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, speaking against the measure, said elected governors — not appointed parole commissioners — should have the final say on whether a first-degree murderer is released from prison.
“This is an extension of the way we work in government all the time,” Shellenberger told the Senate committee. “The top-level executive is making the important decision.”
Kelley, however, 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, she added.
Lila Meadows, of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, praised Kelley’s effort at de-politicizing Maryland’s parole process, particularly when older, long-serving inmates face the risk of contracting COVID-19 in prison and present no threat to public safety based on their age if released.
About 400 of the approximately 2,000 Maryland inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole are over age 60, said Meadows, an instructor in the school’s prisoners’ rights clinic.
“This bill has never been more urgent,” Meadows told the committee. “But for the politicized nature of this process, they would have reentered the community years ago.”