Gov. Larry Hogan has demonstrated a more enlightened, less politically cowardly approach to parole and commutations than either of his two Democratic predecessors, Govs. Martin O'Malley and Parris N. Glendening. That is about the faintest praise anyone could possibly bestow.
Mr. Glendening upended longstanding Maryland practice — and the understanding of lawyers, judges and defendants about the meaning of a life sentence — with his "tough on crime" era pronouncement that "life means life." Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did better on such matters, but Mr. O'Malley spent most of his term simply ignoring the parole commission's recommendations. Eventually, under pressure from the legislature and advocates, he granted parole in some instances, though not in cases of people serving sentences of life with the possibility of parole. Maryland's parole commission made such recommendations scores of times, but none were approved for a period of more than 20 years, a record that covers governors of both parties.
People serving life sentences don't generally elicit much public sympathy. They were generally convicted of heinous crimes, usually first-degree murder. But the fact of the matter is that those who were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole had the understanding — as did the lawyers who counseled them, the prosecutors who convicted them and the judges who sentenced them — that they would one day have the opportunity for release if they had served substantial amounts of time and no longer presented a danger to the community. More than 2,500 people serving life sentences in Maryland are now eligible for parole, and because of the decades-long reluctance of Maryland governors to allow their release, they are an increasingly elderly group.
The issue is not whether one governor or another takes a smarter approach to crime and punishment. The issue is that the governor is involved in the process at all. In 47 states, the recommendation of the parole commission is the final word on whether inmates should be released, even in the case of life sentences. Only Maryland, Oklahoma and California require the governor's blessing. Legislators this year are resurrecting an effort to take the governor out of the parole process, and we believe such a move is long overdue.
Governor Hogan has objected to the measure. A letter from his chief counsel argues that Mr. Hogan is taking the process seriously and giving careful consideration to each case. He notes that Mr. Hogan bucked the trend of recent governors by allowing non-medical parole to two inmates serving life sentences, and he granted commutations — which means a change in the sentence to a term of years — in four others. But even if that's much better than Mr. O'Malley's record, and even granting that Mr. Hogan has only been in office for two years, it remains far outside the historical norm. Gov. Marvin Mandel allowed parole for 92 people serving life sentences; Gov. Harry Hughes, 64; and Gov. William Donald Schaefer, 36. Even if Mr. Hogan did nothing but pore over the cases of parole eligible lifers, he likely couldn't get through the backlog of people who have paid their debt to society and no longer pose a threat but who have been held at state expense because of the decisions of his predecessors.
Mr. Hogan's counsel, Robert F. Sholz, adds that the current situation fosters greater accountability because it puts the final decision in the hands of an individual, elected official who must answer to the voters. But that's not a feature of the system, it's a flaw. When we present cases to juries, we make extraordinary efforts to ensure that their decisions are made free of outside influences. We do the same when judges hand down their sentences. We want them judging the merits of the cases and individuals before them, not popular passions. State's attorneys are elected, yet we would consider it a grave breach of professional ethics for them to decide to bring charges based on whether they believe it will get them votes. Why, then, do we allow politics to intrude at the back end of the criminal justice system, when decisions about individuals' freedom are just as great as they are at the beginning?
We argued when Mr. O'Malley was governor that the parole commission's decisions for those serving life sentences should be allowed to stand on their own, and although we are glad to see that Mr. Hogan is more open to considering its recommendations, we still do. This isn't about Mr. O'Malley or Mr. Hogan, it's about a system that injects politics where they don't belong. Maryland should join virtually every other state in taking the governor out of the parole process.