In a message to Marylanders that he is tough on violent crime, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday he will deny parole for practically all prisoners serving life sentences.
"If you murder and rape in Maryland, and you are sentenced to life in prison, you will serve life in prison," Mr. Glendening said.
The only exception, he said, would be for prisoners who are terminally ill or old.
In announcing his new policy, Mr. Glendening was appealing to crime victims and communities frustrated by the release of violent criminals serving life terms.
The governor said he made the decision because he was horrified by the crimes of eight murderers and rapists recently recommended for release by the parole commission.
Of the 1,756 Maryland inmates serving life terms, only 100 have a sentence of life without possibility of parole.
Until yesterday the rest had a chance, however slim, of gaining release by parole, executive pardon or having their sentences commuted to a fixed term.
All such decisions must be approved by the governor.
The first parole hearing of an inmate serving a life sentence typically has come after serving 12 years in prison.
Although the governor's decision has a powerful symbolic value, it will have little immediate effect.
Such paroles have been few
The number of life-term inmates paroled annually never has been great.
Past governors have approved parole for about six such violent offenders a year on average.
Since 1981, the state has paroled 90 inmates serving life terms.
Since he took office in January, Mr. Glendening has granted release to only one inmate serving a life sentence.
That was for a man who the governor said died shortly afterward of lung cancer.
As if in response to the announcement, an inmate could be heard yelling from behind the razor-wire fence.
Mr. Glendening said his new policy is part of an attempt to make Maryland safer and save taxpayer money.
While ensuring that violent offenders stay off the streets, he said he also intends to move more nonviolent criminals out of prison and into less expensive programs including home detention.
In the face of federal budget cuts, Mr. Glendening has asked all departments to find ways to do more with less. He said Mrs. Townsend would lead a task force to develop "intermediate sanctions" to get nonviolent offenders out of expensive prison beds, and that ultimately the effort would save the state money even as more inmates with life sentences grow old behind bars.
Only 2,000 of the state's roughly 21,000 prisoners are in alternative programs, and Maryland's prison system remains one of the most crowded in the nation.
The governor said he expects a proposal from the task force in about two months.
Political pollsters said yesterday the governor's hard line on parole will play well with the public, but he may have a more challenging time selling his plans to move prison inmates into alternative settings.
"It probably helps him a little bit," said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research in Columbia. "Democrats in general have a 'wimp' image when it comes to crime."
Regarding alternative programs for nonviolent prisoners, Bethesda pollster Steve Raabe said: "Frankly, the public will need to be educated about that, because the public will have concerns."
Commissioner of Correction Richard A. Lanham Sr. said the wardens of each of the state's prisons had been sent a copy of the governor's speech and would meet with inmate advisory committees to inform the prisoners.
Prisoners' advocates disappointed
Advocates for prisoners said they were disappointed by the governor's policy.
"You have young guys who went to prison at 15 with a sentence of life where it was a group crime, and the actual person who did the crime turned state's evidence," said M. Beverly Nur of the Maryland Prison Renewal Committee, a support group for prisoners and their families.
"If that 14- or 15-year-old sits in prison for the rest of his life, I don't think that's fair," she said.
"I think it's going to create a lot of rage. It's not going to be a very safe place to work."
Said Frances Kessler, an attorney with the Legal Aid Bureau's Prisoner Assistance Project: "I just think that because every case is different and every person is different that you can't apply a blanket policy."