Maryland Statehouse in Annapolis where the parole reform bill passed

Parole Reform in Maryland in Needed Now

During the height of the “tough on crime” era of the 1990’s, Gov. Parris Glendening, declared that “life means life” and therefore he would not grant parole to any prisoner who was serving a life sentence. Since then, both Republican and Democratic governors have followed Glendening’s policy. In fact, took twenty-four years for a governor of Maryland to again grant parole to a person serving a life sentence.

Maryland is one of only three states that allows its governor the final say in parole proceedings. A prisoner in Maryland who is seeking parole first must attend a hearing with the Maryland Parole Commission. The Commission questions the inmate and considers multiple factors such as the circumstances of the crime, the inmate’s record of rehabilitation, and the inmate’s future life plan. After carefully reviewing all this information, the Commission will make a recommendation to the governor.

The Maryland Parole Commission’s decision is based on fact-finding and careful deliberation. In contrast, a governor’s decision is potentially tainted by politics. A governor has personal considerations, such as elections and popular support, which are entirely irrelevant to the parole process. No doubt, governors fear a Michael Dukakis moment. In 1988, Gov. Dukakis was the Democratic nominee for President and he was successfully attacked by his Republican opponent after a lifer named Willie Horton committed a number of serious crimes while participating in a prison furlough program Dukakis supported. For governors, granting parole to people serving life sentences is a political risk.

No one deserves to have their freedom dictated by political winds. People serving life sentences deserve a serious and individualized assessment of their circumstances and an openness to the idea that they are capable of rehabilitation and change. This is especially important for prisoners who were sentenced when they were juveniles. In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. While technically Maryland does not have a mandatory juvenile life without parole law, if the governor informally places a blanket ban on parole for juveniles with life sentences, there is in effect a mandatory juvenile life without parole law. This violates the spirit of the Constitution.

In 2021, the Maryland legislature passed a parole reform law that removes the governor from the parole process. Instead, six out of ten Parole Commissioners must approve parole for a person serving a life sentence. The law delegates the parole decision to the agency best situated to make this important decision. Although the law was vetoed by the governor, there is a good chance that the veto will be overridden in the next legislative session.

In a welcome twist, Gov. Glendening has been outspoken in his support for the parole reform bill. Acknowledging his past error, the former governor argued in a Washington Post op-ed from March 2021 that his policy had been “completely wrong” and that “[f]airness, equity, and social justice” require Maryland to remove the governor from the parole process. Project 6 supports this law. By giving the power of parole wholly to the Parole Commission, Maryland would make a statement that lifers are not disposable members of society and that their humanity is too precious to be dependent on politics.