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Editorial Advisory Board: The governor and the parole process

In 1995, then-Gov. Parris Glendenning declared that “life means life” and vowed that he would not grant parole to anyone who had been sentenced to life in prison. Glendenning had this power because Maryland is one of only three states that allows the governor to veto a recommendation by the state’s parole board that a person be paroled.

Later governors followed Glendenning’s lead. Neither Martin O’Malley nor Robert Ehrlich released a single lifer recommended by the Maryland Parole Commission for parole. Gov. Larry Hogan, under the shadow of a lawsuit brought by the Maryland ACLU challenging whether juvenile lifers had a meaningful right to parole given the state’s restrictive policies, has approved the release of 26 lifers on parole since taking office — but denied about twice as many.

Earlier this year, Glendenning admitted that he made a serious mistake in setting Maryland on the “life means life” path. The governor’s stance converted life with the possibility of parole sentences into de facto life without parole.  Depriving incarcerated individuals of the opportunity to be paroled robbed them of hope and ignored the hard work of rehabilitation that many had done.

The refusal to parole those sentenced to life further exacerbated mass incarceration in Maryland (21% of Maryland’s prison population is serving a life sentence). Denials of parole have also fueled Maryland’s disproportionate incarceration of Black people — 76% of those serving life sentences in Maryland are Black.

In a dramatic departure from his former position, Glendenning declared his support for Senate Bill 202, which removes the governor from the parole process.  After 10 years of advocacy by formerly incarcerated people, incarcerated people, their families, and some victims of crime, Senate Bill 202 passed on the last day of the legislative session.

But Hogan opposes the measure. In his testimony against the bill, Hogan argues that the current system makes “[o]ne elected official accountable to the voters,” and that an appointed group cannot be as accountable to the people. Hogan also stresses the many improvements made in the parole process as a result of the settlement of the ACLU’s lawsuit.

The parole process has undoubtedly benefitted from the settlement. Those improvements will assist the Maryland Parole Commission in determining whether incarcerated individuals have shown the kind of growth and remorse that justifies releasing them back into society.

The parole commission is not what anyone would call a “defendant friendly” body.  More than two-thirds of the commission is made up of former law enforcement officers.

Moreover, the commission’s process is thorough and detailed. After reaching eligibility for parole, those with life sentences meet with two commissioners, who probe for details of the underlying offense, closely question applicants about their institutional history, and require them to have solid reentry plans. Individuals who do not express sincere remorse or have not conformed to institutional rules need not apply.

If two commissioners are satisfied with what they learn during the parole hearing, they refer the individual seeking parole for a psychological risk assessment.  Only after they have an opportunity to consider the risk assessment do the original two commissioners decide whether to forward the case to the full commission for review.

If they make such a recommendation, the full commission votes on whether to recommend parole. Under SB 202, a clear majority of the commission will be required to vote to approve parole. Commissioners vote to recommend parole only when they are satisfied that individuals have earned the right to rejoin society and pose little risk of re-offending.

In the 20 years before a lifer would become eligible for parole under SB 202, that person will have had the opportunity to do a great many things: to work, to study, to grow, to change. Determining whether that person can safely rejoin society should be the province of a body that spends significant time and resources to make such an assessment — not the decision of a political actor without any particular expertise in such decisions, beholden to the passions of the electorate. Politics should have no place in parole determinations.

We hope that Hogan will allow SB 202 to become law. SB 202 passed too late to allow the General Assembly to override a gubernatorial veto this year.  But if Hogan vetoes SB 202, as most advocates suspect that he will, we urge the General Assembly to make overriding that veto one of its first pieces of business next session.

Editorial Advisory Board member Arthur F. Fergenson did not participate in this opinion.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Andre M. Davis

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Roland Harris

Michael Hayes

Julie C. Janofsky

Ericka N. King

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.