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Gov. Larry Hogan recently granted parole to three middle-aged men serving life sentences.
Gov. Larry Hogan recently granted parole to three middle-aged men serving life sentences. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

Life is not fair, but a civilized society should do everything possible to make it so. We embrace the ideal of justice, after all, and being just requires being fair — not for the few, but for all.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to grant parole to three middle-aged prisoners serving life sentences was just, particularly because the men were all teenagers at the time of their crimes. But the governor’s action also highlights how unfair the system has been for close to three decades.

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By allowing Navarus Mayhew, Robert Davis and Shawn Delco Goodman to be paroled, the Republican governor did something no predecessor had the objective reasoning or political courage to do since the time of the late William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat who served in Annapolis from 1987 to 1995. After Schaefer pulled back from paroling lifers, no governor who followed (two Democrats, one Republican) granted parole to anyone convicted of rape or murder.

And what’s wrong with that?

Why should anyone serving a life sentence for such violent crimes ever get out of prison?

The answer is found somewhere between the Bible and the Maryland code: The state long ago established a parole system to give criminals a second chance at living in freedom and within the law. Parole is the state’s way of stating belief in human redemption, the idea that all of us (or most of us) can be saved from sin or failure. It’s also a way for the state to save money on incarcerating inmates considered sufficiently punished.

Parole is discretionary, conditional and supervised. Inmates have to serve specific amounts of time before the Maryland Parole Commision will consider them. Unless judges specify a life sentence without any chance for parole, even one-time killers and rapists are eligible for it. They can earn years off sentences for good behavior, for being remorseful, or for just getting old or sick.

Where’s the unfairness in that?

The answer is in the actual application of parole for lifers.

Maryland is only one of three states that allow governors to reject a recommendation for parole, and because governors since the early-1990s took a hard line, the state essentially engaged in bait-and-switch. We offered parole to lifers, and in dozens of cases the commission recommended it, but governors refused to grant it.

That’s what always struck me as unfair, the idea that a governor could just ignore the parole process. Governors have political considerations; they might be thinking about running for senator or president one day. And, if too willing to parole, they might worry about being called a thug hugger.

So Maryland governors commuted a few sentences here and there, but they refused to grant parole to lifers until Hogan’s recent action on Davis, Mayhew and Goodman.

They were juveniles when they committed their crimes.

And that’s important because of what happened in 2012: The Supreme Court ruled that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole was a form of cruel and unusual punishment. In Maryland, the American Civil Liberties Union argues in a federal lawsuit that the state’s system, as practiced, has violated the rights of juvenile lifers by denying them any hope of parole.

Now Hogan has taken a step toward fixing this by allowing the system to work as it once did.

And yet his action only affected a small fraction of juveniles who are serving life terms.

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“To the best of our knowledge, Gov. Hogan has rejected 75% of the juvenile lifer parole recommendations to cross his desk,” says Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney with the ACLU in Maryland. “The average age of those rejected is around 53 years old.”

Kumar says there are more than 300 Maryland inmates who began serving parole-eligible life terms when they were minors. “After holding nearly 200 parole hearings prompted by a lawsuit filed by juvenile lifers wrongly denied release,” Kumar says, “Maryland is paroling three people.”

Here are three other men, typical “juvenile lifers,” who were again denied parole: Nathaniel Foster, 52, sent to prison at 17 for his part in a robbery in which a man was killed; Kenneth Tucker, 62, convicted at 17 for a robbery in which another teenage boy fatally shot the robbery victim; Calvin McNeill, 53, convicted at 17 for his part in a robbery of a dice game that resulted in a man’s death. All have had good records while incarcerated and all have been repeatedly denied release, according to the ACLU.

“Under Maryland’s current parole scheme, the governor is free to decide to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, if it is politically helpful to do so,” says Kumar. And then she adds a key point: “Our focus is not on any one governor, but rather how governors end up using people serving life sentences as political props as it suits them.”

As I have argued before: This whole realm of government is ripe for reform. The correctional system needs to be turned inside out, with far more focus on rehabilitation from the moment inmates, particularly juveniles, arrive.

And we need to get politics out of criminal justice. State’s attorneys should be appointed, not elected. Maryland judges should not have to campaign for election, either. Governors should have no place in parole. Governors, even those we consider wise and well-meaning, are politicians, and in politics, ambition and self-preservation can work mightily against what’s fair, and when you work against what’s fair you work against justice.

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