The fate of the last four inmates on Maryland's death row was finally resolved this week when outgoing Gov. Martin O'Malley, in one of his final official acts, commuted their death sentences to life without the possibility of parole. It was certainly in keeping with his steadfast opposition to capital punishment, but it was a rare departure from his equally strong antipathy toward anything that could be portrayed as being soft on crime.
In an era when public sentiment and policy have shifted away from the zero-tolerance attitudes of the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. O'Malley remained remarkably stingy with his power to alter sentences or even wipe out convictions no matter the circumstances. As The Sun's Justin Fenton reported last month, during his eight years as governor he rejected nearly 1,300 petitions for leniency, including many from people convicted of relatively minor, nonviolent offenses committed decades ago. Over the past three years Mr. O'Malley has granted a total of just 133 pardons, and during his first five years in office he granted only 13. That record that stands in sharp contrast to those of governors in other states, who have pardoned thousands of people over the same period. And it's not a partisan issue: Both Democrats and Republicans have embraced the policy.
Mr. O'Malley recently addressed the issue in one of his "Letters to the People of Maryland," a recap of his years in office he posted online in the final days of his administration. He said he "made a conscious decision to hold [pardon] requests in abeyance for the first term." He doesn't explain why, which leaves little conceivable explanation other than his concern for re-election politics. As for commutations, he notes that most requests involve those serving life sentences, often inmates who are elderly and sick or those who were teenagers when they made a tragic mistake of taking another's life, or when they participated in a crime that resulted in a murder. Some of these individuals have now served decades for a homicide committed when they were 16 years old." The former governor notes that he, nonetheless, granted few of these requests. The post betrays no doubt or introspection about whether that policy was the right one.
Governors' clemency policies can have far-reaching consequences for people saddled with the lifelong stigma of a criminal record stemming from a single lapse in judgment or youthful indiscretion. A criminal history prevents them from furthering their educations, blocks their path to employment or promotions and limits their access to opportunities other people take for granted. Mr. Fenton citied a number of instances — including one involving a rare pardon granted by Mr. O'Malley himself — in which people were able to finally get on with their lives only after having long-ago offenses expunged from their record.
That is why prisoner advocates and civil liberties groups recently called on state lawmakers to eliminate altogether the governor's role in granting parole to those serving life sentences and leave such decisions up to the state probation and parole board, as is the case in nearly every other state. Governors have to worry about being seen as "soft on crime," but parole boards don't. If the board investigates a case and finds reason to recommend a prisoner's release, governors shouldn't have an incentive to ignore such decisions simply because they fear that somehow, somewhere down the line there might be political fallout that could come back to haunt them.
Incoming Gov. Larry Hogan has signaled that he hopes to take a more thoughtful approach to clemency requests, following a pattern established by Maryland's last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. In contrast to Mr. O'Malley's continued discomfort with the idea of exercising his powers, Mr. Ehrlich has recently observed that his willingness to change sentences when it served the interests of justice has become perhaps the most lasting part of his legacy. As he noted in a recent column, there is a growing realization across the nation that a blanket tough-on-crime approach that shows no mercy has not served us well. In recent years governors across the country have begun to reconsider their policies on parole and probation, along with the wisdom of continuing to brand ex-offenders with the lifelong shame of a criminal past. We are glad Mr. Hogan is open to having that discussion. People who have paid their debt to society and pose no threat to the community ought to be able to expect their petitions for parole, pardon or clemency will be considered on the merits, not the politics.