Glendening: 'Life means life' absolutism was wrong

Parris Glendening, who as governor of Maryland in the 1990s and early 2000s effectively stopped all parole possibilities for criminals serving life sentences — including hundreds who had been eligible for it after decades in prison — acknowledges that his action was driven more by politics than by hard evidence that it would make the public safer. In an e-mail to me and in a subsequent interview, Mr. Glendening said he made his famous "Life means life" speech in front of the old House of Correction in Jessup for two reasons — to convince Marylanders that killers and rapists would remain behind bars and to present life-without-parole as an alternative to the death penalty.

But, he said, "The problem is, I made it absolute," leaving no possibility for any lifer to be released unless terminally ill. He said his edict made the parole process "much more political than it should be" and that he would "not have a problem" with a change in state law to remove the governor from that process.

Mr. Glendening, a Democrat, served as governor from January 1995 until January 2003. In his first year in office, he had a rough start; a March 1995 poll gave him a positive rating from just 18 percent of voters and a negative rating of 65 percent. In September of that year, he went to Jessup, declared "life means life," and pledged to reject any parole recommendation for anyone serving a life term.

Maryland is one of only three states that allow their governors to veto such recommendations. There is legislation in Annapolis this year to take the governor — and politics — out of the process and leave parole authority to the Maryland Parole Commission.

Mr. Glendening's e-mail was in response to my recent column supporting that measure. He said he wanted to provide context.

"I was told regularly that the reason we had — and used — the death penalty was that the public and jurors did not believe that life in prison meant that a person would be removed from society for life," the former governor wrote. "You recall, I am sure, the many impassioned speeches about horrible crimes being committed, the evil-doers being convicted and sentenced to life or 60 years, etc., only to be released back to the community in a few years, often to threaten the same families. I am not sure how many times that actually occurred, but it certainly was repeated often enough. It was repeated so many times that it took on an 'urban legend' type belief about how our criminal justice system operated.

"This was also the view of many legislators who supported the death penalty, so that this type of miscarriage of justice would not continue. Was politics also involved in that speech? Absolutely. The very setting for the press conference confirms that. The desire to make imprisonment an alternative to the death penalty, however, was equally important."

Readers, please note: Parris Glendening, one of those new Clintonian Democrats of 1990s vintage, supported the death penalty when he campaigned for office, and during his tenure in Annapolis he allowed two executions to be carried out. Also, a month after his "life means life" speech, Mr. Glendening's approval rating went up by 16 points. So, indeed, there was plenty of politics in this.

Mr. Glendening now says he "strongly opposes" the death penalty.

"My view on the death penalty has changed over the years," he wrote. "I did sign execution warrants in 1997 and 1998. At the time I believed I was doing the correct thing. In 1999, I commuted one sentence to life in prison because there were some doubts about that case. Toward the latter part of my second term, I commissioned a study that showed serious discriminatory application of the death penalty. I stayed a fourth execution until the study was completed."

Mr. Glendening put a moratorium on executions in 2002. The man who replaced him, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., lifted it and allowed executions to proceed. Mr. Glendening protested Mr. Ehrlich's action. He urged Maryland to reinstate his moratorium until the state could guarantee a system free from discrimination and doubts about convicted killers' guilt.

"In recent years my views have moved to opposing strongly the use of the death penalty in Maryland or anywhere in the U.S.," Mr. Glendening said. "The reasons for that are many. Suffice it to say I am trying to end this terrible vestige of a different time in our history. I am working with Maryland opponents to the death penalty as well as nationally …

"Bottom line, you are correct that the parole system must be reformed and made far less political. I am also correct that the public and legislators will be reluctant to repeal the death penalty if they think the parole process is political or if they think a violent criminal sentenced to a long term in prison will be released prematurely and once again become a threat to society."

So, fine. Take the governor out of the process, let the parole commission do its job, and build additional transparency into the system. And instead of acting on "urban legends" and politics, let's make decisions based on facts. Here are a few:

Lifers who are eligible for parole tend to be older, and older inmates have relatively (indeed, remarkably) lower recidivism rates. One study, by New York corrections officials, found that of 368 convicted murderers granted parole between 1999 and 2003, only 1.6 percent committed a new felony within three years, none committed a violent offense.

In the 14 years prior to Mr. Glendening's 1995 "life means life" speech, Maryland had paroled six lifers per year, and Mr. Glendening had approved only one — a fellow who died shortly afterward of lung cancer. Gov. Martin O'Malley has continued the Glendening prohibition; he has refused to approve 49 people recommended for release by the parole commission, according to the Justice Policy Institute.

This is a costly business, especially as inmates get older. And while no one likes to hear the word "unfairness" with regard to violent offenders, it is, in fact, unfair. The vast majority of them were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, and the Maryland governor, taking on the robe of jurist, has essentially altered and extended their sentences.

If we want life without parole for all lifers, then the legislature needs to do that — not a governor acting on his own for political gain.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Follow him on Twitter at and on Facebook. His e-mail is