Fairness for all lifers, not just juveniles

Will Maryland take politics out of the parole system?

Alison Knezevich details how Maryland inmates who are serving parole-eligible life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles may now be considered for minimum-security and prerelease facilities ("Md. juvenile lifers could be considered for minimum-security, work release programs in policy shift," June 26). Public Safety Secretary Stephen T. Moyer's decision to reverse the rules that for 23 years have prevented any Maryland lifer from being placed in facilities below medium-security is a wise decision. The change comes in response to recent Supreme Court decisions on juvenile life sentences, according to spokesman Gerry Shields.

This shift in policy is long overdue, and we applaud the changes, especially for juveniles, because the science on the development of the brain supports the court's decisions on why juveniles should be treated differently. This is also reflected in the recent Maryland Court of Special Appeals decision in which the court ordered re-sentencing for three convicted murderers.

There is however, a larger issue here — the need for work release and family leaves for all persons serving parole-eligible life sentences and the removal of politics from the parole process. These programs are the hallmark of the prison system. They are the incentives necessary for rehabilitation and redemption. Maryland traditionally had a parole expectation built into its prison system as a mechanism to control behaviors. People serving parole-eligible life sentences were paroled after serving 20 to 25 years. These programs were discontinued in 1993 following a tragic domestic murder-suicide by a participant, and state corrections officials moved all 134 lifers from pre-release to medium-security prisons. In 1995, then-Gov. Parris Glendening announced that no one serving a life sentence in Maryland would be paroled.

Without incentives for a change in behavior, the system fails. As Judge Frederick Motz stated in one of his opinions, "Hope and the longing for reward lay at the heart of every human endeavor, without it there is no reason to do good."

The Maryland Court of Appeals in Unger v. State in 2012 mandated individuals convicted under unlawful jury instructions before 1980 are entitled to new trials. The decision affects well over 200 people and at least 155 cases have been decided resulting in144 released, two re-convicted, one acquitted while eight died pending release and seven were released to detainers. Of those released, at least 17 had been denied parole in 2012 by Gov. Martin O'Malley. They have all made successful transitions back into the community and are not a threat to public safety.

The parole commissioners, by statute, have skills relevant to the task. They are experienced at assessing risk and they already are making recommendations for this group of people. There is still accountability since the commissioners are appointed by the governor, but the governor will not bear the sole burden of decision-making.

By relieving the governor of this responsibility, it would remove the appearance of politicization in decision making. This can be done by striking the sections requiring the governor's signature. This is why legislators should seriously consider approving those changes. They will restore faith in the system, giving those incarcerated incentive to change and remove politics that unnecessarily waste taxpayers dollars that could be used other places. While we recognize that those who were juveniles are deserving of a second chance, we also recognize that all persons should be treated fairly in the criminal justice system.

Walter Lomax, Baltimore

The writer is executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative.

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