Opinion: Governor Should Be Removed From the Parole Process

Parole Process

Second of two parts

Maryland has the dubious distinction of leading the country in incarceration of Black people. In 2018, the Justice Policy Institute reported that more than 70% of the state prison population is Black, though only 31% of the state’s population is Black. Looking at long-term incarceration, nearly 80% of those who have served 10 years or more in prison are Black and among the people with the longest prison terms, 82% are Black.

We didn’t get here by accident. The statistics illustrate a buy-in to the idea that certain people do not deserve our compassion, have no capacity for redemption and deserve to be locked away, forever.

That harsh view has many costs. It represents a decision that the $46,000 annual cost per incarcerated person in the state is better than allowing people who have served significant time to demonstrate that they are rehabilitated and ready to become productive members of society. This decision challenges our humanity as well as our wallet.

Maryland’s governor is one of only three in the country with the final say in whether to ever actually release a person sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. In Maryland, a “lifer” seeking release on parole goes before the Maryland Parole Commission for review. In fact, a person may go before the commission many times getting little sense of what else could be done to convince that body. If the commission does recommend parole, the governor must approve the recommendation.

By the time a parole recommendation reaches the governor, it represents considerable examination by the entity established to do the assessment. The only thing the governor can add is a political calculation that has little to do with what the person has done to meet the criteria for parole.

In 1995, former governor Parris Glendening famously announced that a life sentence “means life,” adding that he would not be granting parole to anyone serving a life sentence, even to those whose sentences called for the possibility of parole.

In one move, Glendening usurped the place of both the sentencing judge and the Parole Commission, and he denied hope to hundreds of Marylanders incarcerated with life sentences. Former governors Bob Ehrlich and Martin O’Malley likewise did not grant even one recommendation of parole. Gov. Larry Hogan was the first governor to grant parole since Glendening’s fateful pronouncement.

Justin (a pseudonym used to protect privacy) was 15 when he walked into a stranger’s apartment and killed her. The apartment was the same one he had lived in with his mother at one point in his turbulent childhood. He does not recall how he got there or much about the incident. He does recall vividly the period before it.

His mother had beaten him repeatedly and locked him in the house for over a week. This was not unfamiliar. Throughout his life, she had been beaten him with belts, a boat oar and other items within her reach. She had squeezed him between her legs as she punched his head. He had struggled to breathe as she sat on his head. He had been sent to five different foster homes, where the story was no better. In foster care, he was denied food and beaten bloody. On the day of the murder, after over a week of isolation and beatings, his mother had decided to let him out to go to the store for her. He found himself at their old apartment instead.

Justin is not unlike disoriented or otherwise troubled young people who do terrible things. The terrible things they do warrant punishment. What they do not warrant and what we do all too often is to throw them into adult prisons content that they remain there forever.

A year ago, Gov. Hogan granted parole to three juvenile lifers; it was the first time in 24 years that a juvenile lifer was granted parole. Several more have made it through the parole process since, but the number pales in the face of almost 300 juvenile lifers sitting in prison.

This remains so in Maryland despite the Supreme Court rulings that recognize that the juvenile brain is not fully formed and thus juvenile offenders are less culpable than adults and more likely to reform.

These rulings brought considerable pressure on Gov. Hogan to provide what the court described as a “reasonable opportunity for release” in order to avoid inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on those who committed crimes as children. While lip service has been paid by parole regulation and an executive order, the trickle of releases demonstrates that Maryland has failed the constitutional mandate.

Justin received a life sentence. He has been in prison 36 years. He has demonstrated in every way imaginable that he is someone who is ready to play a productive role in society. He has not had an infraction – a violation of prison rules – of any kind for 29 years. This is extraordinary in its own right.

In prison, he gained his high school diploma and numerous certificates from educational and skills programs available to him, and was acknowledged for his work successes. He has a home to go to, if he can ever get out — not the abusive one he left, but the home of the woman he married having met her many years ago in connection with his work at the prison. She is his lifeline and she describes him as her center. Through the years, he has become close to her family. They all dared to hope; but the governor denied the Parole Commission’s parole recommendation.

We need to affirm the meaning of a life-with-parole sentence: if rehabilitation is demonstrated, when eligible, parole should be granted. Layering politics on top of the Parole Commission’s recommendations undermines the rule of law and is out of step with all but two other jurisdictions in our country allow.

Last year, legislation to remove the governor from the parole process passed the House with a veto-proof majority. In the upcoming session, it is important that this legislation passes both the House and the Senate in the same manner.

Without it, politics will keep people who have served very long sentences and demonstrated rehabilitation with little hope of ever leaving prison.

— MARGARET MARTIN BARRY

The writer is a member of the Montgomery County Women’s Democratic Club; she directs the Re-Entry Clinic at American University Washington College of Law.

Click here to read part one of this two-part series of commentaries.