Advocates for the rehabilitation of prisoners are calling on state lawmakers to eliminate a requirement that Maryland's governor sign off on any parole recommendation for an inmate serving a life sentence.
Frustrated with the refusal of outgoing Gov. Martin O'Malley to free convicted killers even when Maryland Parole Commission has approved their release, the activists are also urging incoming Gov. Larry Hogan to take a more flexible approach.
Among those speaking at an Annapolis news conference Tuesday organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland were former lifers who were freed by the courts after repeated parole applications had been denied.
"Obviously it's politics," said Stanley Mitchell of Prince George's County, who spent almost 35 years behind bars for murder before being released as a result of a Court of Appeals decision about improper jury instructions years ago. "Everybody hopes this new governor does something different."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer paroled 25 lifers, but more recent Maryland governors have virtually closed the door on such applications.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, like Schaefer a Democrat, adopted a "life means life" approach and granted no paroles in eight years in office except for medical reasons. Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. granted no paroles in his four years but commuted several life sentences. O'Malley fought to repeal the death penalty and commuted the sentences of the last four Maryland death row inmates to life without parole. But he has taken a hard line on releasing prisoners who were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. He granted clemency to three in 2012, but has approved no non-medical paroles
While the activists who gathered Tuesday pinned some of their hopes on Hogan, their principal aim was to pass legislation that would take the governor out of the decision entirely.
Under legislation sponsored by four members of the Baltimore delegation — two in the Senate and two in the House — Maryland would join the majority of states that leave the decision to release lifers to parole authorities alone.
"These individuals have paid their debt to society," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden. "And in many instances we said to them, 'You have life with the possibility of parole if you do X, Y and Z. ...' Then politics comes along and says 'I am not letting you out.' That is not right."
Baltimore County State's Attorney Schott Shellenberger opposes making it easier for those who have committed "horrendous crimes" to gain release.
"The person making the ultimate decision on whether to let them out should be someone answerable to the voters," he said.
A spokeswoman for Hogan had no comment on whether he would support the legislation.
The ACLU appeal came on the day O'Malley's commutation of the sentences of the four remaining death row inmates became official. Attorneys for one of those convicted killers, Jody Lee Milles, promptly filed a motion in Queen Anne's County Circuit Court challenging O'Malley's action, saying the governor does not have the power to change a death sentence to life without parole. The attorney has suggested his client would have a chance at parole if the decision is left to the courts.