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Parole Reform Passes MD House

The House of Delegates approved and sent to the Senate Thursday a bill that would cut the governor out of the parole process for inmates serving life terms.

It’s a step that was more than 25 years in the making, ever since then Gov. Parris Glendening famously said in 1995, that “life means life” and turned down every parole request for inmates sentenced to life that came to his desk.

Subsequent governors, with the exception of Gov. Larry Hogan, have followed suit, approving few if any parole requests for lifers. And lawmakers have been trying to remove Maryland’s governors from the process ever since, arguing they were trying to take politics out of the decisions.

Glendening has since changed his mind. He wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post earlier this week supporting the bill. He told WYPR Thursday he realizes now he made a mistake.

“I think, like the general public, life in prison, in my mind, meant some very bad people did some very bad things,” he explained. “Well, in fact, now we know that that's not necessarily true.”

 In some cases, he said, the three strikes rule forced some people to be sentenced to prison for decades for crimes such as marijuana possession, that are no longer considered felonies. A 19-year-old sentenced under those rules could be in his 60s now, turning prisons into  “geriatric facilities,” Glendening argued.

He said leaving governors in the process runs the risk of politicizing it.

If someone who has “done something bad” is being considered for parole by an elected official in an election year, “the chance of getting a truly impartial fact-based decision is very, very remote,” he said.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat, would increase from 15 to 20 years the time inmates sentenced to life must serve before they are eligible for parole while removing the requirement for the governor’s approval.

It passed on a near party line vote, 93-41.

Del. Nic Kipke, the Republican leader, noted that Gov. Hogan, unlike his predecessors, has paroled 29 persons serving life. And he complained that Democrats beat back Republican amendments to the bill.

“And because we didn't adopt reasonable mitigating language, you know, there is the possibility that individuals serving life could get out in a very short period of time and will be held to the same standards as individuals who are serving for much longer sentences,” he said.

One of those amendments would have increased the time a prisoner with a life sentence must serve to 25 years before being eligible for parole. Another would have gradually phased the governor out of the process based on the number of years an inmate had served and a third would have required a unanimous vote by the parole commission.

But Del. Pam Queen, a Montgomery County Democrat, pointed to the number of times over the last 25 years governors have overruled parole commission decisions. She questioned the validity of a sentence of life with the possibility of parole if politics could ultimately play a role.

If a commission of “experienced professionals” decides someone should be paroled, “and the governor just disregards that decision, where is the truth,” she asked.

Clippinger, who argued for the bill during Wednesday’s debate, acknowledged Thursday the lawmakers who had worked on the issue previously.

“I just want to thank the Delegate from Montgomery County, Delegate from Prince George's County who have advocated for this bill for so long and have moved this bill so far,” he said. “It's because of them and their passion, that we are where we are today.”



Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
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