Few politicians get elected by promising to release more people from prison. But Republican Larry Hogan and Democrat Anthony G. Brown both say they would do just that, by more quickly approving parole for prisoners serving life terms who are recommended for release by the parole commission.
Their agreement that Maryland's next governor should make more aggressive use of the power to parole lifers is one of several criminal justice issues that have been lost amid the high-profile topics driving the narrative of the campaign.
Brown and Hogan may have sparred publicly over Maryland's new gun law, but they hold similar positions on a number of criminal justice issues, including the role of rehabilitation programs, whether the state should explore outfitting police officers with body cameras, what to do with the four men currently on death row and whether the state should legalize marijuana.
Political experts say those topics have remained under the radar because few voters consider them essential when deciding which candidate to back.
"I don't think the Brown folks want to talk about it because it opens them up to attack, and I don't think Hogan wants to talk about it because it distracts from his message on the economy," said Todd Eberly, political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "It benefits neither of them."
While they might not court voters on these issues, each has taken positions that offer a peek into how he would deal with significant criminal justice questions facing the next administration.
Brown said that unlike Gov. Martin O'Malley, he would not need to be spurred by the legislature to take action on recommendations by the parole commission.
"It's an awesome authority vested in a governor," Brown said in a recent Baltimore Sun interview. "I think you ought to use it how you see fit, without the legislature having to say how and when."
O'Malley did not act on a single recommendation to grant parole to a life-term prisoner during in his first term in office, and only began to make rulings on them in 2012 under pressure from a new state law. The General Assembly required the governor to act on recommendations from the parole commission within six months or the recommendations would become final. In his first act, O'Malley allowed the release of two convicted murderers serving life sentences and denied 57 other applications. He has since allowed for the release of one other prisoner serving a life sentence.
Maryland is one of only three states whose governors have veto power over parole decisions involving life sentences, and in recent years the power has been used lightly. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, for example, set a "life means life" policy and generally refused to approve such paroles. Ultimately, he paroled six people over his two terms in office, but they were all released for medical reasons.
Hogan told the Associated Press this month that he would rejuvenate the program if elected and seek the guidance of Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who released six life-term inmates during his four-year tenure as governor. Ehrlich is regarded as more liberally using the state's pardon and clemency powers than his predecessors.
"We'd like to go back to the way it was done in the Ehrlich administration," Hogan said. A spokesman declined to elaborate on Hogan's plans.
Governors across the country have come under fire for releasing prisoners who later go on to commit crimes.
Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the pendulum began to swing in Maryland during Gov. William Donald Schaefer's terms, when a convicted murderer on a work-release program killed himself and his girlfriend in 1993.
Before then, Millemann said, governors had a long tradition of releasing inmates sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. Gov. Marvin Mandel released 92 convicts serving life sentences during his term. Gov. Harry R. Hughes released 64, and Schaefer released 36.
"That's part of the job," Millemann said. "You can't run away from it."
Brown and Hogan also agree that one of the main ways to improve the state's prison system is by ensuring that people who leave it don't return. Each supports stronger rehabilitation programs for inmates.
Hogan, however, would like to get the state out of the business of running the Baltimore City Detention Center, where more than a dozen guards were indicted in a 2013 corruption scandal.
"As governor, I would work to transfer control of the center back to the city as soon as possible," Hogan told The Baltimore Sun earlier this year. "Our state government is stretched too thin."
Hogan also says he supports a greater emphasis on drug courts and diversion programs that treat addiction instead of sending people to jail. The position is similar to Brown's strategy to create a "comprehensive, long-term plan" for management as well as to invest in programs that train ex-offenders and help them find jobs once released.
Hal Riedl, who worked as a case manager in Maryland prisons for 20 years before retiring in 2010, questioned whether the emphasis on rehabilitation would be effective.
"Some of the people they're talking about, in my opinion, are dangerous men," Riedl said. "There's nothing wrong with providing that stuff, but it's still catch-and-release. They're still putting dangerous people back on the street."
Four convicted murderers remain on death row in Maryland, though the state abolished the death penalty for future cases. Both candidates said they would review each man's case individually. They declined to foreshadow their decisions.
And both campaigns have expressed some support for deploying cameras on police officers, a topic of national discussion since the shooting death of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., this year.
"We would support putting cameras on police cars," Hogan running mate Boyd Rutherford said at Sept. 27 forum, adding that a Hogan-Rutherford administration would roll out that sort of program jurisdiction by jurisdiction. "We support the concept, and we think it can be done."
Hogan's campaign declined to say whether the Republican would support the use of body cameras.
Brown said in a statement Wednesday that he is closely watching the work of state group studying whether to use body cameras.
"Ultimately, the decision to pursue these programs will be up to local police departments," Brown said. He added that he would consider pilot programs and state grants to help departments set up the system, if a work group studying the issue recommended that.
"We are committed to making sure that Maryland law enforcement officers have the best technology available to do their jobs," he said.
The only criminal justice issue to draw public attention in the campaign is Maryland's strict new gun law. Brown's campaign and the Democratic Governors Association, which has spent millions of dollars backing Brown's candidacy, have pummeled Hogan with ads criticizing his position on gun control.
Brown was a strong supporter of the 2013 law, which bans the sale of 45 types of assault rifles, limits magazines to 10 rounds and requires handgun buyers to give their fingerprints to state police.
Hogan said in the primary he opposed the law because it "went too far," but in recent debates said he did not support it because it did not go "far enough." Nonetheless, he has consistently said he would not work to repeal it.
Both campaigns have said they do not currently support legalizing marijuana in Maryland.
Hogan told The Baltimore Sun earlier this year, "I'm opposed to full legalization of marijuana, and it's concerning that some politicians seem so intent on raising tax revenue for their pet projects that they would rely on people using mind-altering drugs to do so."
Brown has said Maryland will look to Colorado and Washington, states where marijuana is legal and taxed, to weigh the socioeconomic effects of legalization. "We will learn from their experiences and assess whether additional changes to Maryland's law are warranted," Brown told The Sun.
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