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Editorial

Gov. Hogan should sign legislation to take governors out of Maryland’s parole process | COMMENTARY

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, at left, speaks with House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones during a bill signing ceremony at the State House in Annapolis on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

Among the legislation missing from the list of bills Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law during a ceremony Tuesday was a measure that would take away his power to approve — or deny — the conditional release on parole of an inmate sentenced to a life term. Maryland is one of three states that gives its governors such authority, adding a political element to the process that serves no practical good.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the legislation, which has been a long time coming, is destined for the veto pile. The governor has until the end of the month to decide what to do with the bills from this year’s legislative session before him, and he could allow this one to become law without his signature. But we would much prefer he throw his weight behind it and sign it.

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While in office, he’s already granted the recommended release of several men sentenced to life for crimes they committed as minors. And in 2018, he issued an executive order requiring that future governors give special consideration to people sentenced to life for offenses as juveniles. It’s not too far a bridge to take the next step and support the removal of the governor’s approval altogether. That’s the case in 47 others states in the country, and it should be the case here.

The Maryland Parole Commission doesn’t grant parole without an extensive review process, taking into consideration comments from the victims or their families, the amount of time served, the remorse shown, the personal progress made, the so-called “good behavior” exhibited and the likelihood that the inmate longer poses a danger to society. Parole petitions are denied regularly for any number of valid reasons, and that’s how it should work. They should not be denied after commission approval, however, by a politician who is simply seeking to score partisan points, with no expertise on such matters nor regard for what the inmate has done to earn release. And that goes for both Republicans and Democrats.

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In 1995, then Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, announced — in front of the state prison in Jessup — that he would not approve parole for inmates serving life sentences, except in “rare cases.” This blanket policy meant people who had been sentenced with a possibility of parole, in reality had no possibility, at least not with Mr. Glendening in office. They would spend the rest of their years in prison, even if they had atoned. The only exceptions to the rule were terminally ill inmates or those who were very old. “Life means life,” he declared.

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was far more progressive on the issue than Mr. Glendening was while in office, granting clemency and pardons to multiple people and regularly reviewing — though not always granting — parole commission release recommendations. But former Gov. Martin O’Malley brought back a hard-line stance. The legislature forced the issue with a lifer parole bill that required the governor to respond within 180 days, when the Maryland Parole Commission recommended parole for those serving life sentences. Mr. O’Malley then granted parole in some instances, but not for people serving sentences of life with the possibility of parole.

The result over the years: Governors from both parties ignored the parole commission’s recommendations, preventing people a commission had deemed worthy of release from turning lives around or reconnecting with families. Despite Maryland’s parole commission having made legions of recommendations for release over the years, none were approved for more than 20. Those decisions also contributed to a costly mass incarceration problem that has done little to deter crime and created a mass system of racial injustice in the prison system. Most of the inmates left to linger in prison are African American.

Governor Hogan is correct when he says he’s more liberal at granting parole than his Democratic predecessors, and for that we give him credit. But it doesn’t take much to improve on the Democrats in this matter. His administration has also said that governor involvement creates a system of accountability where the person making the final decision is accountable to voters. That may be, but it’s still too much power in the hands of one individual who is not an expert in inmate rehabilitation.

We can’t give back the years of life many have lost, but we can do better for the next generation of those who are incarcerated who have learned from their mistakes and now have something to offer society. Even Mr. Glendening agrees today. Several years ago he gave a full-throated endorsement to similar legislation before the Maryland General Assembly, giving the pragmatic assessment that such decisions are a lose-lose for governors anyway — they’ll be criticized no matter what. With that in mind, we’ll understand if Gov. Hogan lets this bill quietly become law, but we’d much prefer his signature and the message of support it carries.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.


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