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Maryland’s legislature removes politics from the parole system. That’s progress. | COMMENTARY

Calvin Ash served 47 years in prison, the last 15 after the Maryland Parole Commission had recommended his release. The governor at the time refused to approve Ash for parole.
Calvin Ash served 47 years in prison, the last 15 after the Maryland Parole Commission had recommended his release. The governor at the time refused to approve Ash for parole. (Dan Rodricks / Baltimore Sun)

To be a progressive state, Maryland has to act like one now and then. The last two sessions of the General Assembly — in the cause of public education in 2020, in the cause of a fairer justice system in 2021 — put us there.

Despite the governor.

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Despite his vetoes.

Despite Gov. Larry Hogan’s need to show the Republican base, all across the fruited plain, that he hasn’t developed Stockholm syndrome from spending too much time among Democrats in Annapolis.

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If Hogan still has ambitions for higher office — say, his party’s nomination to be president in 2024 — he has to be on record as opposed to progressive Democratic proposals.

That’s what Republicans do.

Last year, he went against the Kirwan Commission recommendations for a big, bold and hopefully transformative investment in public education.

This year, Hogan opposed bills to reform law enforcement and criminal justice.

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Both times, as expected, the General Assembly overrode his vetoes — and Hogan kept himself viable as a future candidate. His aspirations for bipartisanship to “fix the nation’s broken political system” are admirable. But with the awful former president still holding power over the GOP, and with Florida governor Ron DeSantis ascending as the so-called “competent Trump,” only a solidly conservative record makes the Republican nomination remotely possible.

So, politically, Hogan’s vetoes make sense.

Before I go on, a note about “competence” in regard to DeSantis and his handling of the pandemic: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Maryland under Hogan has fared better than Florida under DeSantis. Florida’s case rate is 37% higher than Maryland’s. Its death rate is 13% higher. And its test positivity rate over the last week, at 9.9%, was more than twice as high as Maryland’s, by the standards of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

Back to my main topic, criminal justice.

While the big news out of Annapolis was the passage of significant police reforms — again, over Hogan’s objections — there were two changes at the other end of the criminal justice system, in sentencing and in corrections, that constitute real progress.

I’m talking about the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole and the governor’s long-held power to reject parole for all inmates serving life sentences.

I’ve written about both subjects, one of them extensively, and I applaud the passage of the reforms.

The General Assembly voted to end life without parole as a possible sentence for juvenile offenders. Hogan vetoed the measure, but the legislature quickly voted to override.

Good.

Already 24 states and the District of Columbia have abolished this punishment as an option for judges. The Supreme Court has moved in that direction, too, with rulings that reflect acceptance of brain science that adolescents, while still developing, are more prone to impulsivity than adults and, therefore, should be treated differently.

The idea that a 16-year-old boy or girl who commits murder should go to prison forever is unjust and cruel. It goes against a fundamental human belief that, with help, damaged, dangerous people have the potential to change.

Our thinking has evolved and progressed.

As a nation, we have gone from wide embrace of the death penalty — 80% approval in a 1994 Gallup survey — to the death penalty’s abolition or moratorium in half the states, including Maryland.

It must be noted that those of us who opposed capital punishment accepted life without parole as a substitute.

But even that level of punishment began to seem inhumane, especially for those convicted as juveniles. It was also expensive and counterproductive.

So, this year, the Maryland legislature did away with life without parole for juveniles, and then, as if to prevent a future governor from violating the spirit of that ban, it eliminated Maryland’s chief executive from the parole process for lifers entirely. (Hogan opposed that measure, too.)

Maryland is one of only three states that allow its governor to veto a recommendation by the state’s parole commission that an inmate serving life be released. This has allowed governors to keep in prison dozens of inmates, including some convicted as juveniles, though they had earned the commission’s approval for release.

Readers might recall the case of Calvin Ash, who committed a murder when he was 21 and stayed in prison until he was 68. Hogan commuted his sentence in 2019, nearly 15 years after the commission had first recommended release.

Ash had stayed in prison all that time because Martin O’Malley, a Democratic governor who later ran for president, refused to sign off on the recommendation. In fact, O’Malley rejected parole for all lifers until the legislature started to force his hand.

That was a decade ago. It was clear by then that the power of the governor — Republican or Democrat — to reject parole recommendations served politics, not justice. (Another former Democratic governor, Parris Glendening, admitted that to me in an interview after he left office.)

I think killers and rapists should go to prison and they should serve longer sentences than all other offenders. But since we have a parole system, those sentenced with the possibility of parole should be allowed to work toward it. And, if they earn it, they should get it.

To do otherwise and allow a politician to reject the studied recommendations of the parole commission amounted to governmental bait-and-switch. Thanks to the Democrats in the General Assembly we will hopefully soon be done with that. I call that progress.

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