The Maryland House of Delegates voted unanimously in favor of a bill Thursday that will guide state payments to exonerees who have been wrongfully imprisoned.
The vote brings Maryland one step closer to a statewide standard for processing payments to those who have lost their freedom for crimes they did not commit.
State laws have been on the books for years to allow such compensation, but the process to make a claim has been inconsistent and the state has no statutory standard to decide payment amounts, generating new debate each time the issue arises.
In October 2019, Maryland’s Board of Public Works made the first exoneree payments in 15 years: $9.3 million to five men who were collectively wrongfully incarcerated for more than 117 years, including Walter Lomax, who was held for more than 38 years. But the payment was not without its hurdles. Attorneys for the men agitated for years to get the issue before the Board of Public Works, and the panel debated for months how best to settle the claims, with some critics alleging foot-dragging.
Since then, five others have been compensated more than $12.7 million collectively. Since 1984, only five other exonerees had received payment from the state.
Fiscal analysts estimate that retroactive applications to increase the state’s payment based on the new calculation could add up to $4.5 million.
Under The Lomax Act, the title for the bill, an administrative law judge will determine whether exonerees qualify for compensation from the state, and the Board of Public Works would make an initial compensation award equal to one-year of the state’s median income within 60 days of a judge’s decision.
Overall, the bill would require the state to pay exonerees for each day they served in prison after a conviction, at an annual rate equal to the state’s median income.
The bill would also provide exonerees access to health insurance, job training, education, housing and other state services.
The Senate, where the measure stalled on the last day of the 2020 session, passed that chamber’s version of the bill unanimously earlier this session.
On Thursday, House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City) told colleagues he grew up with Lomax’s sister and knew his family. He passionately spoke about Lomax’s arrest as a young man, and release in older age.
“This guy was arrested that long of a period. And he was innocent,” Branch said. “So what kind of price do you put on that? …He can’t get back that time that he lost. His family won’t get that time with him.”
But the bill’s passage did not come without debate. An original vote on the measure came to 134-2.
But an hour later, the two Republicans who initially voted against the measure ― Dels. Jason C. Buckel (Allegany) and Matthew Morgan (St. Mary’s) ― stood to change their votes on the House floor, sparking a round of vigorous applause.
“In the interest in comity and out of recognition of the losses that some of these folks certainly suffered, I’d like to change my vote on HB 742 to green,” Buckel said.
Earlier he and other colleagues expressed concern that state tax dollars would be used to make payments to exonerees, while the wrongful imprisonment could be traced back to specific local prosecutors or police agencies.
“What I would see as fair and equitable is that if a jurisdiction makes a horrific, inexcusable mistake, they ought to pay for it,” said Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick).
Other lawmakers disagreed, arguing that many of the wrongful convictions at issue were also considered by the state appellate courts and that debates over who should pay would unnecessarily delay compensation.
“We should not get caught up on the issue of who pays,” said Del. Keith E. Haynes (D- Baltimore City). “The overarching issue that we should focus on and keep in front of us is that these individuals have already paid.”
Several other Republicans stood on the floor to encourage their colleagues to vote in favor of the bill.
Del. Sid Saab (R-Anne Arundel), while lawmakers’ votes were popping up on the chamber’s tote board, encouraged any “nay” votes to change their minds.
“There is no price for freedom, there is no price for the lives that were ruined, because of someone that may have been incompetent, or for whatever reason, might have been made a mistake. So I encourage everyone that has a red vote on this bill to change it,” Saab said. “And even though we cannot make what was done right … at least it’s the right thing to do to give those people some closure, or some way to apologize to them. And you can’t put a price on this one.”
Also on Thursday, the House passed a bill to remove Maryland’s governor from parole.
House Bill 3, introduced by Del. Pamela Queen (D-Montgomery) and House Judiciary Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), would remove the state’s requirement that the governor sign off on parole board recommendations for parole or commutation on life sentences. Maryland is one of just a few states that still have such a requirement.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) is the first governor in the 21st century to sign off on a parole recommendation in the state. No person sentenced to life was released on parole for more than two decades as a result of Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s “life means life” policy from the 1990s.
Queen, who has pushed for parole reform for years, charged that the judicial system is operating on “non-truths” if the governor can overrule the decisions of jurors and a parole board.
“The parole system, which this bill addresses, is 25 years overdue about restoring truths,” Queen said. “Truths about restoring the will of the people who serve as jurors and on the parole commission board, restoring provisions of redemption, second chance and rehabilitation in our Maryland correctional system and policies, and restoring the intent of Maryland law regarding sentences and crime and punishment.”
The bill’s passage came after a trio of Republican amendments were rejected by the House on Wednesday. Those amendments would’ve tacked on additional requirements to the bill, like requiring an inmate to get “unanimous agreement” from the state’s parole board to be released.
House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel), whose own rejected amendment would’ve gradually phased out the governor’s authority based on how long a “lifer” had served, said Thursday that the legislation will create the possibility of a relatively early release for some inmates.
“Because we didn’t adopt reasonable mitigating language, there is the possibility that individuals serving life could get out in a very short period of time,” Kipke said.
The proposal was passed in a 93-41 vote and will now move on to the Senate; a separate parole reform bill is pending in that chamber.
Glendening himself has advocated for the reform, calling his own policy to reject parole a “serious mistake” in retrospect.