Number of U.S. prisoners serving life sentences has quadrupled

Population of 'lifers' grows nationally, report says

The number of U.S. prisoners serving life sentences has more than quadrupled over the past three decades, and those eligible for parole are waiting longer to be released, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report from The Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates for sentencing reform, says that those serving parole-eligible life sentences in Maryland "face major hurdles" in qualifying for parole.

"People are serving longer and longer sentences," said report author Nazgol Ghandnoosh. "Most of these people have committed very serious crimes. But the question is, how long do we need to keep them in prison for?"

According to the report, in recent decades the population of people serving life sentences nationally has grown at a faster rate than the general prison population.

Between 2008 and 2012, for example, when the total national prison population shrank amid historically low crime rates, the number of people serving life sentences grew by 12 percent, the report found.

Ghandnoosh's research found that for eight jurisdictions for which statistics are available since the 1980s, the average time served by paroled lifers with murder convictions doubled — from 11.6 years in the 1980s to 23.2 years for those released between 2000 and 2013. Maryland was not among the jurisdictions used in those calculations.

The report says there are now about 110,000 people nationwide serving parole-eligible life sentences, including more than 2,000 in Maryland. It attributes the growth in the lifer population to several factors, including actions by lawmakers, governors and parole boards that have toughened parole policies, "effectively increasing prison terms for these individuals."

The Sentencing Project is based in Washington and works to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system and advocates for alternatives to incarceration.

The report released Tuesday says that no one serving a life sentence in Maryland has been paroled since 1995.

State officials dispute that. The parole issue is a point of contention in an ongoing lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Maryland and the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, a prisoner-rights group.

The ACLU sued Gov. Larry Hogan and state correctional officials in federal court last year, arguing that the state's parole system for juveniles sentenced to life in prison is unconstitutional.

In a statement to The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday, corrections officials said that since Hogan took office two years ago, he has paroled one inmate serving a life sentence and commuted the sentences of three others who were granted parole by the state's Parole Commission.

Since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., eight others serving life sentences had them commuted and were granted parole by the commission, officials said.

"All the paroles of lifers by the commission were only possible by the commutations of the governors," state Parole Commission Chairman David Blumberg said in the statement.

ACLU attorneys contend that commutations are legally distinct from parole.

Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said the report "provides even more evidence that Maryland is one of the worst states in the country on this issue."

"The report shows that other states — and not just blue states, but states like Missouri and Georgia — regularly parole dozens of lifers each year," she said.

In Maryland, only the governor can grant parole to someone sentenced to life. Even if the state's parole commission recommends release, the governor does not have to do so. The state is one of only a few nationwide where the governor has such power.

The ACLU's lawsuit says Maryland's parole system "changed dramatically in 1995," when then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he would not grant parole to anyone sentenced to life. Before that, the state Parole Commission regularly recommended parole for lifers and governors approved the releases.

The state has asked for the ACLU's lawsuit to be dismissed, and both sides presented arguments in federal court in January. Judge Ellen L. Hollander has not issued a decision on the state's request.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger has defended the current system and opposes efforts to end life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

"I don't think those who have committed first-degree murder and first-degree rape deserve a second chance," Shellenberger said. "I think that in the interest of public safety, the governor, whether a Democrat or Republican, has a duty to protect the citizens of Maryland."

Shellenberger said he plans to testify in Annapolis on Wednesday against a bill that would prohibit life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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