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Government & Politics

Nonprofit organization plans to release comprehensive report on Maryland’s parole system

David Blumberg, left and standing, chair of the Maryland Parole Commission, gives remarks before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee about the state’s parole system on Jan. 12, at the committee’s first briefing of the 2023 legislative session. Photo by William J. Ford.

It’s known that Maryland has highest incarceration rate in the nation of young Black men. The Justice Policy Institute, which released a report on that issue in 2020, now plans to release a report soon that assesses the state’s parole system.

Ryan King, director of research and policy for the institute, said a comprehensive assessment of the parole system was last done in January 1935 by the Baltimore Criminal Justice Commission.

“Reviewing this sadly, 90 years later, many of the concerns that were flagged in that report remain as issues and concerns now,” he told members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Thursday.

It marked the committee’s first briefing during the 90-day legislative session that began Wednesday.

A copy of the report wasn’t made available Thursday, but King summarized some data from the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the state’s Parole Commission, interviews with attorneys, criminal justice advocates and residents who went through the parole system.

Out of slightly more than 21,000 parole hearings held since 2016, approximately 8,141 formerly incarcerated people were granted parole.

However, more than 5,800 were refused.

William Hamilton, 47, of Baltimore City, was released seven months ago after being charged at 16 and serving about 30 years on a murder conviction, and having appeared before the parole commission five times.

One problem with parole, he said, is that parolees are often released without preparing them to be productive and stable outside prison.

“We were sent to an institution with no programs. There’s no vocational training of any [kind],” Hamilton said.

That’s why, King said, the justice institute proposes that Maryland adopt some “best practices” that include making more transparent a parole process that is “often cloaked in secrecy;” fully documenting reasons a person is denied parole rather than writing only a few sentences; ensuring that members of the 10-member parole commission don’t exclusively have backgrounds in law enforcement; and expanding eligibility for compassionate release, including for inmates who are 50 years and older, a cohort that comprises 6% of the state’s prison population.

David Blumberg, chair of the state’s Parole Commission, disagreed with a few of the institute’s recommendations for improving the parole system.

As for the backgrounds of commission members, Blumberg said state law requires appointees to have not just training and experience in the law, but also in social work, education, or psychology.

He said people eligible for a parole hearing “are automatically” scheduled for one and don’t have to request it.

Later the committee’s discussion turned to eligibility for geriatric parole, which the state makes possible for prisoners who are 60 and older.

Sen. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) sponsored legislation last year that sought to release more inmates who fit that criteria, but it didn’t advance.

“Do you think it’d be helpful if we took another look at that bill this year?” asked Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County).

Before Blumberg answered, he turned from the lectern toward several supporters of the policy institute’s recommendations who nodded their heads in approval.

“If the bill comes before us, we would be happy to consider it,” the parole commission’s chair said.

Blumberg also briefed the committee about state statistics relating to the state’s parole and prison system.

According to a report from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, not even 10% of parolees released from prison returned between 2016 and 2019 because of “a new sentenced offense.”

Blumberg said the department plans to hire another psychologist by Tuesday to help complete a backlog of risk assessments, which are done to determine a person’s mental well-being.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City) is sponsoring legislation that would repeal the governor’s power to overrule a decision by the commission to grant medical parole to an inmate serving a life sentence. The bill is cross-filed with Del. J. Sandy Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel).

‘Very busy’

Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery) attended her last meeting of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Thursday because Gov.-elect Wes Moore has chosen her to serve as secretary of state.

Del. Ariana Kelly (D), elected to her fourth term in the House of Delegates, is planning to apply for Lee’s seat.

Four newly elected senators participated in meeting – Bill Folden (R-Frederick), Mary-Dulany James (D-Harford), Michael McKay (R-Allegany) and C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s). Muse served on the panel during his prior Senate tenure.

Del. Alonzo Washington (D-Prince George’s) is seeking the seat of Sen. Paul Pinksy (D), who resigned from the Senate on Tuesday after Moore named him to head the Maryland Energy Administration. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) indicated that Pinsky’s replacement would serve on Judicial Proceedings.

The committee already has more than four dozen briefings scheduled.

“We are going to be very, very busy this session,” said Sen. William Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), who chairs the committee.