The Maryland Senate on Monday approved legislation to strip the state’s governors of the final say in parole decisions for inmates sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
With the Democratic-led Senate’s largely party line 31-16 vote, the bill goes to the House of Delegates, where Democrats are also in the majority.
Gov. Larry Hogan is expected to veto the legislation if it is passed by the General Assembly. The Senate’s 31 votes in favor of the bill would be short of the 32 needed to override a veto.
Senate Bill 202’s sponsors said the measure would ensure that inmates sentenced to life would have a meaningful opportunity for parole 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, the sponsors said.
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.
“Governors have stood in the way” of the commission’s considered recommendations to parole some life-sentenced convicts based on demonstrated rehabilitation, remorse, education and desire to improve society, Sen. Jill P. Carter, a sponsor of the bill, said during floor debate.
“The parole commission is not some liberal body out there just trying to set everyone free,” added Carter, D-Baltimore city. “They are absolutely not in the business of recommending people for parole who don’t deserve parole.”
But Sen. Robert Cassilly said the governor provides a necessary “check and balance” on the parole commission.
“The governor is the gatekeeper,” said Cassilly, R-Harford.
“That (commission) is an appointed body,” he added. “They’re bureaucrats. They’re not subject to the voters.”
In a letter opposing the bill, Hogan’s office stated last month that SB202 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. “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 a 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 last month.