By Walter Lomax
On June 2, 1993, Rodney Stokes who was in the work release and family leave programs committed murder-suicide. On June 3, 1993, the people in those programs serving parole-eligible life sentences were removed from those programs and returned to medium-security facilities.
Even after maintaining excellent institutional records to qualify for those programs, they are being punished for a senseless crime that no one could have predicted. To add insult to injury, in September 1995, the sitting governor announced that he would no longer consider any parole request for “lifers” and instituted a policy that “life means life.” (All of these individuals are, or were, serving parole eligible life sentences.) This is why legislation introduced as SB 249 Inmates – Life Imprisonment – Parole Reform and its companion bill in the House HB 723 should be voted on favorably.
After many years of continued advocacy to change the “life means life” policy, in 2011 the General Assembly passed legislation giving any sitting governor 180 days to make a decision on recommendations sent to the office. Shortly after the legislation took effect in 2012, the governor denied all 57 petitions sent to his desk.
Ironically, in 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a decision, now known as the Unger decision. The decision mandated that anyone convicted prior to 1980 and tried by a jury was entitled to new trials because of unconstitutional jury instructions. The actions taken by legislators in 2011 should be applauded because they recognized the system was not operating according to legislative intent.
However, legislators did not go far enough. The actions taken by the governor in response to the legislation were arbitrary, capricious and politically motivated. This is why politics should be removed from the parole process.
This change would not create a mass exodus of people serving parole-eligible life sentences, but just a sensible approach to what has proven to work in the past; giving these individuals a meaningful opportunity at release. The parole process would still be under the executive branch’s authority because the governor would still appoint the parole commissioners.
Starting in May 2013, lifers began being released — over 170 people have been released under the Unger decision so far. All were serving parole-eligible life sentences. Of those released, at least 17 were of the 57 denied parole by the governor in 2012. Along with the other 153, the majority have made successful transitions back into society. Some of them are profiled in a report “Still Blocking the Exit.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of people willing to make a change.” We are those tireless and persistent advocates; people willing to work for that change.
The popular term “mass incarceration” is used to describe the current criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” are two excellent books to understand some aspects of the disproportional representation of minorities, specifically African-American males, impacted by this system.
In Maryland, there are 22,087 individuals currently incarcerated (2,100 are serving parole-eligible life sentences) with a staggering number on parole or probation. The numbers are even more compelling when counting those who have criminal records.
Maryland spends more than $288 million a year on its criminal justice system.
The late TV actor Jack Webb, who played the character Joe Friday in the series “Dragnet,” made this famous saying popular, “Just the facts, please.” Well these are just the facts: America has the highest incarceration population in the world. In the 1970s, there were a little over 300,000 people incarcerated. Today, there are over 2.3 million, with 6 million on parole or probation and more than 8.3 million people directly connected to the criminal justice system, with an estimated 20 million more with criminal records.
The collateral consequences of this are staggering because of the many barriers to succeed, i.e. employment, housing, education, voting and the many others, not to mention the devastating effects this has on neighborhoods and communities. The circumstances of a person’s crime will never change, but people can, and often do.
The 1969-to-present timeline for people released serving parole-eligible life sentences is indicative of this:
- 1969 — Gov. Marvin Mandel takes office. Paroles 92 lifers during his two terms.
- 1979 — Gov. Harry Hughes takes office. Approves parole for 64 lifers.
- 1987 — Gov. William Donald Schaefer takes office. Paroles 25 lifers.
- 1993 — Rodney Stokes, a lifer who is on work release, takes the life of his girlfriend before taking his own life.
- 1995 — Gov. Parris Glendening takes office. Announces that even though judges believed lifers would be paroled “life means life” and he will not parole any Maryland lifers. He has since stated that he regrets his approach. In the course of his eight years in office, Glendening rejects every parole request.
- 1999 — Maryland Court of Appeals, in Lomax v. Warden, holds that the governor’s announcement did not violate the rights of lifers who were being denied parole. Subsequent legal challenges on other grounds also fail.
- 2003 — Gov. Robert Ehrlich takes office. No lifers are paroled. Five are commuted.
- 2007 — Gov. Martin O’Malley takes office. Takes no action on pending requests.
- 2011 — Confronted with evidence that no lifers are being paroled and that pending requests are held in limbo for years, the General Assembly modifies a statute to require the governor to act upon Parole Commission recommendations within 180 days. On the day of the hearing, the governor announces he has rejected seven commutation requests for lifers.
- 2012 — Forced by law to act, governor denies the dozens of pending recommendations, commutes three others.
- 2012 — Court of Appeals issues Unger v. Maryland, finding that, in the 1970s, Maryland juries were wrongly instructed on how to assess the guilt of the people before them, resulting in the possibility of new trials for more than 200 people still incarcerated.
- 2013 — Individuals begin coming home in the wake of Unger. More than 170 people have come home and are making successful transitions. At least 17 of the people who have come home were previously recommended for release, dozens of others previously recommended are still incarcerated.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has taken some action, especially in light of the juvenile class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU. However, it has not addressed the cause of the problem, the politicization of the parole process.
It costs the state approximately $38,000 (this is a generous figure) a year to warehouse these individuals, while it costs $14,000 a year on parole or probation. In calculating the savings, 170 multiplied by $38,000 a year that’s $6,460,000 a year. Over the four years since 2013 that would be $25,840,000 saved. There are no costs in the fiscal note to implement what we are seeking. The one line in the statute requires the governor’s signature for people serving parole eligible life sentences to be released.
These people were sentenced with the understanding that they would have a meaningful opportunity for release if they were rehabilitated. Many were expected to serve less than 20 years, and have now served twice that much time, and more.
Studies have shown that people serving life sentences have lower recidivism rates than those convicted of less serious crimes. The success of those released due to the Unger case demonstrates that lifers can return home without compromising public safety.
Parole decisions are best left with parole commissioners who have expertise, using a thorough process, vetting these individuals decades or more. Without a change, Maryland will continue to spend millions to incarcerate an elderly and aging prison population that could live safely in the community. Legislators are urged to consider passing legislation to do away with this mundane and archaic parole policy. They should be encouraged to spend our tax dollars more wisely.
Hope and the longing for reward lay at the heart of every human endeavor; in its absence, there is no incentive for anyone to change. These men and women continue to demonstrate they deserve a meaningful opportunity at release in spite of their circumstance. Quoting the esteemed Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will.”
Walter Lomax is executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. He can be reached at [email protected].
Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative will hold a news conference and rally at noon Feb. 1 on Lawyers Mall in Annapolis.