The sorry legacy of 'life means life'

Fifteen years ago, when Parris Glendening was in his first year as governor of Maryland and his voter approval rating was under 20 percent, he gave his famous "life means life" speech. He announced that he would never approve parole for any inmate serving a life term -- unless they were very old or very sick -- and he told the Maryland Parole Commission not to even bother sending recommendations to his desk.

The mild-mannered former professor, a Democrat elected in 1994 by one of the narrowest margins in state history, showed that even liberal-leaning, good-government nerds could show some brass and exploit public fears for political gain.

Throwing the keys away on lifers, including those who had been sentenced with the possibility of one day being paroled, was an easy way for Mr. Glendening and other Democrats of the 1990s (President Bill Clinton, foremost) to neutralize right-wing criticism that they coddled criminals. The Willie Horton case influenced politics across the country for years after the 1988 presidential election -- it still does -- and Mr. Glendening, among others, learned the lesson. Nixing parole for lifers was a no-brainer in every sense of that expression.

According to the Maryland Parole Commission, there are some 2,330 inmates serving life sentences in our state prisons.

The Justice Policy Institute, which examines how policy and politics contribute to the nation's world-leading incarceration rates, says Maryland is only one of three states that give their governors the power to nix parole suggested for a lifer.

As a result of Mr. Glendening's "life means life" edict, no one serving a life term in Maryland has been paroled outright since 1995.

Mr. Glendening's Republican successor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., took a more discerning approach during his four years in office, instituting an independent review of parole commission recommendations. His staff took them on a case-by-case basis. By 2006, when he faced an election challenge from law-and-order Democrat Martin O'Malley, Mr. Ehrlich had commuted the sentences of five lifers, granted medical parole to one and denied 11.

Mr. Ehrlich's system respected the judgment of the parole commission, established nearly 100 years ago during a period of bold, progressive reforms aimed at cleaning up government and modernizing its processes.

In reviewing parole requests, the 10-member commission considers the nature of the crime -- usually murder or rape -- and the impact on the victim. It assesses an offender's "physical, mental, and moral qualifications" and his progress during incarceration; whether there is a "reasonable probability the offender will not violate the law if paroled," and whether the offender's "parole would be compatible with the welfare of society."

Based on all that, the commission decides whether an inmate has progressed enough to deserve parole.

Mr. Glendening's policy, fully restored in the O'Malley administration, never even opens the door of possibility for lifers.

The Justice Policy Institute found that 30 lifers have been recommended for parole during Mr. O'Malley's term, but the governor has denied all requests. This, more than anything, explains why Mark Farley Grant is still in a Maryland prison.

Mr. Grant was convicted of murder in Baltimore at the age of 15; he has been incarcerated since 1983. He continues to deny that he committed the crime. Students and professors associated with the Innocence Project at the University of Maryland Law School conducted a lengthy investigation and agreed that Mr. Grant did not commit the crime that resulted in his life sentence.

Pre-Glendening, it's entirely possible that Mr. Grant, who has served nearly 27 years, might have been out of prison by now. The rules changed during his incarceration -- or rather, the system became politicized.

I have written about his case several times since last September. The Innocence Project sent the O'Malley administration its report in the summer of 2008 and requested clemency for Mr. Grant. Nothing has happened. Mr. Grant has been given no special consideration; he's merely standing in line at the parole commission, along with everyone else. And, unless Mr. O'Malley makes an exception, Mr. Grant will probably remain in prison while his advocates seek some other remedy. Even with a commission recommendation, outright parole does not appear to be an option for him, especially in an election year.

This is why two Baltimore legislators, Sen. Nathaniel McFadden and Del. Curt Anderson, have come up with an excellent idea. They've submitted bills to remove the governor from the parole system -- to take politics out of this process. The legislation would put the power to approve or deny parole back where it belongs: with the parole commission, with men and women who do not have to run for office.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only.

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