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Md. General Assembly strips governor of parole decisions

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, was chief sponsor of SB 202. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, was chief sponsor of SB 202. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

With just hours left in its 2021 session, the Democratic-led General Assembly on Monday approved legislation to strip Maryland governors of the final say in parole decisions for inmates sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

The Senate passed the measure on a 30-to-17 vote; The House of Delegates tally was 88-50. Both largely party line votes would be sufficient to override Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s expected veto.

Under Senate Bill 202, the appointed Parole Commission would make the final decision regarding parole rather than simply making a recommendation to the governor. Parole would be granted if six of the panel’s 10 members vote for approval.

Inmates would be eligible for parole after serving 20 years in prison, which could be reduced to about 17 years with good behavior credits.

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.

But Hogan’s office, in a letter opposing the bill in February, stated 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.”

On Monday, Senate Republicans voiced the additional concern that the bill’s allowance for parole consideration after less than 20 years for adults convicted of crimes stands in stark contrast to the minimum of 20 years that those convicted of crimes committed as teenagers would have to serve before parole eligibility because they do not qualify for diminution credits under legislation enacted this year.

Senate Republican Leader Bryan W. Simonaire, of Anne Arundel County, called the disparity “a flaw in the system” and Senate Republican Whip Michael J. Hough, of Frederick and Carroll, criticized the “incongruity in the law” during floor debate.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, was chief sponsor of SB 202.

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