Testimony on Senate Bill

Position: SUPPORT Senate Bill SB-694/Crossed filed in House HB-723 Inmates-Life Imprisonment-Parole Reform

 

February 15, 2017

To: Senate Judicial Proceedings 

From: Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative

 

We have advocated for many years, (technically since 1993) for a change in the current policy. We’ve said that if the men and women serving parole eligible life sentences were to be released they would not be a threat to public safety, and would become assets to their communities, and not liabilities. In 2012 the Unger decision was decided, allowing new trials for those convicted before 1980 under faulty jury instructions.  They were all parole eligible lifers. Since May 2013, over 160 have been released with not one single recidivist.  Calculate the math; 160 X approximately, 38,000 dollars a year, that’s $18,924,000 dollars saved by their releases.

What is even more remarkable are those who have been released through the courts without the Unger decision, we know that there are over 20. That’s another $2,280.000.

 

The fiscal note for our legislation to implement the change does not cost the state anything.  There are over at least 47 people still waiting to be released under Unger, yet those who do not have the Unger decision remain in prison because of politics.

 

An interesting fact about some of the people released under Unger, 24 of them had been recommended for parole by the parole commission, and denied parole in 2012 by former Governor O’Malley.

 

Using risk assessments, and best practices, this group of people should be at the top of the list. They are now saving the taxpayers of Maryland millions of dollars. The question becomes, how much time served is enough? Especially if the individual(s) pose no risk to public safety, and can be assets to society.   

 

If we first look at retribution, punishing a person for doing something wrong, incapacitating them to protect public safety, using this as a deterrent to crime; secondly we must look at rehabilitation, or rather habilitation, to change a behavior.  If this has been accomplished than we must ask ourselves, what is the use of continued punishment? To continue to keep people locked up for circumstance that will never change,(the nature of the crime)  even when they have demonstrated they have changed, is not sound judgment,  nor fiscally responsible, when these taxpaying dollars can be spent more productively.

 

More people serving parole eligible life sentences have been released under the Unger decision in over three years, then any of the last seven governors released during their administrations: Governor Mandel released 92 during his term in office. Governor Hughes released 64, Governor Schaefer released 25, Governor Glendening, paroled none, Governor Ehrlich commuted five sentences, but paroled none, and Governor O’Malley commuted 3, but paroled none. For the past twenty years no one serving a parole eligible life sentence has been parole out right in Maryland. Governor Hogan has commuted some sentences, but have not paroled out right any..

 

These tax paying dollars can be spent far more wisely, and the list of speaker who will testify at today’s hearing will lay out the case why this legislation should be voted favorably. 

 

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ACLU Lawsuit: Juvenile Life Sentences Unconstitutional

This week, the ACLU filed suit against Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and others in his administration. The suit was filed on behalf of the plaintiff, MRJI, and three juveniles serving parole eligible life sentences. The suit alleges that juveniles sentenced to life with the possibility of parole have been serving de facto life sentences without parole due to the political ramifications of releasing any lifers in the last twenty years.

See articles from the Baltimore Sun and Courthouse News Service detailing the lawsuit below:

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"Unblocking the Exit" Screening Held at Morgan State University

Dr. Anna McPhatter, Dean of the School of Social Work at Morgan State University, hosts the screening of "Unblocking the Exit" documentary. 

The event was held Saturday, January 9, 2016 from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM at the Morgan State University Student Center,

1700 E. Coldspring Lane, Baltimore, MD 21251 - Room 210

Read Walter Lomax's opening remarks and view the documentary below:

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Taking Politics Out of Parole

Taking Politics Out of Parole

This is the ling to the broadcast: http://wypr.org/post/taking-politics-out-parole

 

By DAN RODRICKS & MAUREEN HARVIE

Maryland is one of the only states in the county that permits a governor to reject or veto a parole commission’s recommendations.  We take another look at parole reform in this hour with Tessa Hill-Aston, president of Baltimore’s NAACP, and Walter Lomax, of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative (MRJI), who served 39 years in prison for a wrongful conviction. Here is a link to the report, "Still Blocking the Exit," written by the ACLU of Maryland and the MRJI.

Plus, how much is Maryland spending to incarcerate people from Baltimore City?Marc Schindler, from the Justice Policy Institute, shares new findings on how much is spent on incarcerating Baltimore residents. 

 

HB-303 has been rescheduled for Friday, February 20th, the day after SB-111 which is being heard on the 19th

RESCHEDULED: Media Advisory rescheduled for February 19, 2015
THURSDAY: MARYLAND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE INITIATIVE, ACLU PRESSER/RALLY TO SUPPORT BILL TO DEPOLITICIZE PROCESS FOR PAROLE-ELIGIBLE LIFE SENTENCES.
News conference at 11 a.m. on HB 303, Inmates – Life Imprisonment – Parole Reform, in Lawyers Mall on Feb. 19
Contact
Meredith Curtis, ACLU of Maryland, 443-310-9946, curtis@aclu-md.org
Walter Lomax, Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, 443-413-6076, waltermandalalomax@hotmail.com
ANNAPOLIS — Advocates will join with state lawmakers on Thursday, Feb. 19 for a rally and press conference between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. in an effort to pass bills in this legislative session that would depoliticize the process governing what happens to those individuals given parole-eligible sentences and who are recommended for release. They will be joined by individuals released under the decision in Unger v. State of Maryland, which held that flawed jury instructions given by judges prior to 1980 denied defendants the right to a fair trial.
A new report, "Still Blocking the Exit," released in January, tells the stories of many individuals given parole-eligible life sentences who have been denied release despite being recommended for it.
Senators Nathaniel McFaddenLisa Gladden, and Anthony Muse, as well as Delegates Jill Carter and Curt Anderson are scheduled to participate in the rally and news conference. They will be joined by advocates Walter Lomax of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, Toni Holness of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, and Keith Wallington of the Justice Policy Institute.
WHAT: News conference at which state lawmakers, state organization leaders, and individuals who have been released from incarceration following the decision in Unger v. State of Maryland will talk about why the parole process for those serving parole-eligible life sentences must be depoliticized. 
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 19; rally between 10:30 and 11:30 am; news conference at 11 a.m. ET
WHERE: Lawyer’s Mall, 100 State Circle, Annapolis, MD
WHO: Senators Nathaniel McFaddenLisa Gladden and Anthony Muse
Delegates Jill Carter and Curt Anderson 
Walter Lomax, Founder and Director, Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative
Toni Holness, Staff Attorney/Policy Associate, ACLU of Maryland
Keith Wallington, Project Manager, Justice Policy Institute 
Individuals released under the Unger decision

Action Alert: News the main stream media will not give you!

The hearing dates for our legislation Inmates – Life Imprisonment – Parole Reform are: February 17th HB-303 at 1:00 PM, and February 19th SB-111 at 1:00 pm in the Judicial committee hearing rooms.

 

We are planning a rally and press conference in Lawyers Mall in Annapolis between 10:30 and 11:30 am on the morning of the 17th before going inside to testify at the hearing.  If you are concerned about this issue you are welcome to attend.  Don’t wait until your moment of truth before deciding to take action, it may be too late.

 

There is some misinformation being circulate that our legislation does not seek removal of the governor from the parole process. This is not correct; the legislation seeks to remove the 180 days, along with the requirement of the governor’s signature for release. We’ve sought a retraction to be sent notifying people of the mistake so that they are not confused. Still waiting to see it!

 

Our position has always been; and continues to be, good decisions are made with good information, and this is why we've compiled the report ‘Still Blocking the Exit.’ It supports our position for parole reform. We also understand that there may be those who oppose releasing persons serving parole eligible life sentences, (which is different from life without parole) and they may never change their positions. We do, however, want to make sure they are aware of the fact that many people who were serving parole eligible life sentences are now free under the Unger decision living successful lives back in the community. (At this writing over 80) At least seventeen of them were denied parole in 2012, and have already begun saving the state of Maryland what would have been taxpaying dollars to keep them incarcerated. Our ask is; Equal Justice, Join us or get out of our way.

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Legislation introduced SB-111 and HB-303

Legislation has been introduced in the Senate and crossed filed in the House. SB-111, Lead sponsor Nathaniel McFadden, cosponsors  GladdenKelley, and Muse; and HB 303, lead sponsor Jill Carter, cosponsors  AndersonGlennHolmesB. RobinsonRosenbergSmithSydnor, and Valentino-Smith. On page four are the names of the people on both committees. A form letter was sent some time ago to be used when writing to the committee members, it is suggested that each person can create their own letter, using the factual information in the form letter.

                Our position has always been; and continues to be, good decisions are made with good information, and this is why we’ve compiled the report ‘Still Blocking the Exit.’ It supports our position for parole reform. We also understand that there may be those who oppose releasing persons serving parole eligible life sentences, (which is different from life without parole) and they may never change their positions. We do, however, want to make sure they are aware of the fact that many people who were serving parole eligible life sentences are now free under the Unger decision living successful live back in the community. (at this writing over 80) At least seventeen of them were denied parole in 2012, and have already begun saving the state of Maryland what would have been taxpaying dollars to keep them incarcerated.

                Our plan of action is to have as many of them at the bills hearing's) as possible to demonstrate that they are not a threat to public safety, and releasing those who are equally deserving can save tax payers millions of dollars now being wasted warehousing them unnecessarily for political concerns.

It’s Hump Day with your social media news update. The story you will not get from main stream media.

Most of us lives have been affected by crime(s) in one manner or another. It is one of the most difficult things to overcome, especially with the lost of a loved one. The question then becomes, how much should we punish the person(s) who committed the crime(s)?  In our advocacy for restorative justice, we have always been concerned about the victims/ survivors’ of crime(s).  Some of our strongest supporters are people whose lives have been impacted by crimes, Ms. Ginger Dukes Beal who lost her son, appeared in the documentary ‘Blocking the Exit’ (unfortunately she passed away in 2013) was one of the strongest advocates for restorative justice. Ms. Bonnitta Spikes, who lost her husband to senseless violence is an out spoken advocate to abolish the death penalty, supports, and has spoken on many restorative justice panels. The mothers of S.A.V.E., (Survivors Against Violence Everywhere), seeks restorative justice too. This is the healing process, as no one benefits from a system that does not consider whether an individual has changed, is remorseful, served their time, and are no longer a threat to public safety. This is the hall mark of our system, without forgiveness there is no healing.

Governor Hogan’s willingness to take these things into consideration is applaud-able, it will not however, address the overall issue, that parole eligible life sentences are political. No one serving a parole eligible life sentences has been paroled out right over 20 years. (1995) Governor Glendenning (Democratic) did not parole any lifers during his 8 years in office, During Governor Ehrlich’s  4 years in office (Republican)  he only commented a few, but did not parole any, and during Governor O’Malley’s (Democratic) 8 year administration he did not parole any.

With the election of Governor Hogan (Republican) who has publically stated that he would take a more aggressive approach to pardon, and commutation petitions coming before his office, creates an interesting scenario. When he leaves office, can we expect a reversal of his position? If history is any indication of what to expect, we can assume so. This is why the parole process must be depoliticized with parole reform.  

The Maryland Court of appeals decision in 2012, in Unger V. State, mandated individuals convicted under unlawful jury instructions before 1980 are entitled to new trials. The decision affects well over 200 people, and as of today close to 80 has been released; 17 of those released had been denied parole in 2012 by Governor O’Malley. They have all made successful transitions back into the community, and are not a threat to public safety.

 

The parole commissioners, by statute, have skills relevant to the task; they are experienced at assessing risk; and they already are making recommendations for this group of people.  There is still accountability since the Commissioner’s are appointed by the Governor, but the Governor will not bear the sole burden of decision-making.

 

By relieving the governor of this responsibility it would remove the appearance of politicization in decisions making.  This can be done by striking the sections requiring the governor’s signature. This is why legislators should seriously consider approving those changes. The legislation will restore faith in the system, giving those incarcerated incentive to change, and remove politics that unnecessarily waste taxpayers dollars that could be used other places, such as schools, recreation centers, and treatment programs.

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THE DAILY RECORD August 31, 1996 Getting Tough on Crime Means State Holds Political Prisoners.

THE DAILY RECORD August 31, 1996

Getting Tough on Crime Means State Holds Political Prisoners.

 

Maryland, like most States has a parole expectance built into its criminal justice system. When politics are not in the equation, deserving persons are released on parole. There are various degrees of sentences: minimum length, maximum length, mandatory, with parole, and without parole. And like most other states, Maryland has a parole system. The parole system, as with the many other systems are approved by the legislature, operates under specific criteria which have been tested and accepted by the judiciary. But until 1995, a weakness in one area

— That should have been corrected years ago — was made painfully clear by newly elected Gov. Paris N. Glendenning when he declared that he would absolutely Refuse to grant parole to lifers serving parole eligible life

Sentences. To date, neither Glendenning nor his administration has offered any rationale for this position. He is, however, the governor and his views must be considered, with the understanding that for each view put forth there are alternative, and opposing ones. The governor's position is that persons serving parole eligible life sentences are predators and a danger to public safety and that keeping them in prison is the answer to the crime problem. Glendenning has stated that he will not sign for the release of any parole eligible lifer unless the prisoner is very  old or dying.

 

Since the governor has not offered any statistics to support this position, we must await his response.

In the Interim, I shell put forth an opposing view. First, in the past, parole eligible lifers have been released on parole based on criteria established by the Parole Commission, and approved by the legislature. Their records indicate that the vast majority are now living productive lives in society and that recidivism is less than 6 percent — as opposed to 18.2 percent for all other groups. Until June 1993 parole eligible lifers progressed through the correctional system; from maximum to medium, to minim security, and to work release and family leaves before being considered for parole. This process takes years, sometimes as many as 20, depending on exceptional behavior before being approved for a lesser Classification.

 

Cruel and unusual

In a lawsuit filed on behalf of the lifers. District Court Chief Judge J. Frederick Motz stated in an opinion considering the claims, that "Hope and the longing for reward for one's efforts lay at the heart of the human condition ... their destruction is punishment in the profoundest sense of the word ... cruel and unusual punishment."

And, more and more Judges and prosecutors have been receptive to the suspended life sentence’s, with the intent of the individuals' having an opportunity for release on parole. Many individuals — including the 134 removed from Maryland's prerelease system in June 1993 — were sentenced long before Willie Morton, whose release and

Subsequent crime spree became a tough-on criminals rallying cry that helped sweep George Bush into the Oval Office in1988. Most of these Individuals had been incarcerated over 20 years, and some had been successful in the work release and family leave programs.

 

Because Maryland has a statute mandating a sentence of life without parole, as well a sentence with parole, sentencing judge’s has the option of which sentence to impose. If a sentence of life with parole has been given, one would assume that was the judge's intent; and for Glendening to take an opposing view, he has In effect created a unique class of Individuals — political prisoners. The cost to Maryland taxpayers is $20,000 to $25,000 a year to support a lifer. In 1983, there were 819 persons serving Parole able life sentences in the state and today there are over 1,700.

 

In 1987, there were 12,542 prisoners in this division, today there are over 23.000. In 1987 the Actual fiscal

year expenditures were $281 million; the FY expenditure for 1997 Is $642 million. For parole eligible lifers alone, it cost $43 million, and if current trends continue, before the year 2000 the D.O.C. FY expenditure will surpass the $1 billion mark without effort.

 

Options:

 

The Offenders and Advocates Coalition for Change and the Maryland Lifer's Fund have offered a solution to the problem: — legislation to repeal the governor's authority to sign for a parole eligible lifers release- after having completed 20 years of the sentence. The fact is, when politic are not in the equation, deserving persons are released on parole. The governor's policy does not address the crime issue, protects no one, and unnecessarily punishes people who have already served their sentences.

 

Special Interest groups ask; “what about the victims”? “Do they not have rights”? The answer is yes they do, and always have. Legislation mandates a penalty for every crime committed in the state of Maryland as well as the procedure for how each penalty is to be carried out. What is at issue here is the abuse of an authority vested in an individual for the sole purpose of political gain.

 

One also should bear in mind, philosophically speaking; prisons were designed to rehabilitate-. The victims are not helped by Glendenning’s policy, which only became popular as a result of the Willie Horton case and its political ramifications.

 

The parole board, when making recommendations for release considers a myriad of criteria, most of which are approved by the legislative branch. The eight commissioner, who are paid $50,600 s year, are devoted on a full-time bases to the parole board and are some of the most qualified Individuals in the state. Chairman Paul Davis is the former commissioner of the Baltimore City Jail and has spent over 27 years in the Maryland corrections system; others have worked as public safely Workers, district court commissioners, police officers, state senators, police Chiefs, drug enforcement officials, attorneys and other professions. They are appointed by the governor, approved by the legislature, and with the exception of parole eligible lifers, have the authority to parole all other persons serving a sentence in Maryland. This is one point of view, and there are probably many others, but the bottom line is, there is a need for dialogue concerning parole eligible lifers.

 

Waller E. Lomax is a prisoner incarcerated at Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, Lomax,

was sentenced  to life with the possibility of parole, has been in the system since December 1967', when he was 20 years old. For 29 years he has been a model prisoner,

participating in numerous educational and social activities. Lomax serves as coordinator for the Maryland

Lifers Fund, an advisory group for prisoners serving parole eligible life sentences

 

 

 

 

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Report to support parole reform

In early 2012 Governor Martin O’Malley denied 57 individuals serving parole eligible life sentences, citing former Governor Glendening’s “Life means Life policy. (Glendening no longer has this position) In April 2012 the Unger decisions was decided affecting well over 200 people serving parole eligible life sentences. (at the publishing of this report 17 of those denied in 2012 have been released under the Unger decision) This report intends to demonstrate that those denied parole in 2012, not affected by the Unger decision are equally deserving of a meaningful opportunity of release.

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Maryland is moving away from the Supreme Court on issue of juvenile parole

For many juveniles in Maryland, parole is out of reach

Maryland is moving away from the Supreme Court on issue of juvenile parole

 By Walter Lomax

8:00 a.m. EDT, July 22, 2012

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The court cited the developmental differences between young people and adults and concluded that children and teens are different from adults for the purpose of criminal sentences.

Maryland does not technically have mandatory sentencing to life without parole for minors. But for all practical purposes in our state, sentences of life with the possibility of parole have become synonymous with death in prison, contrary to the intent of sentencing judges. A succession of governors, who now have the power to make final parole decisions for people serving life sentences, have opted not to grant parole except in rare cases.

Consider, for example, Robert Martin, who was 15 when he was sent to prison in 1976 for killing his grandfather. He is now 50. Mr. Martin has taken advantage of every program available to him. In addition to his lengthy set of accomplishments in prison, we also are struck by the fact that Mr. Martin has been incarcerated for his entire adult life for a desperate teenage attempt to protect his baby sister and grandmother from an abusive family member.

Robert Martin is one of the many Marylanders sentenced as teenagers who deserve a fair chance.

Our organization, the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative (MRJI), does not advocate for the blanket release of any group of individuals; rather, we ask only that the state of Maryland honor the trust it has placed in the parole commissioners to determine whether an individual has proven he or she deserves to be released during his or her lifetime, rather than die in prison.

In 2012, we advocated for legislation to ensure that individuals sentenced to life as juveniles in Maryland have a meaningful opportunity for parole — not a guarantee of release, but a fair shot. The legislation would have had required parole commissioners to make final decisions on parole, replacing the current system in which that responsibility belongs to the governor.

A year earlier, we succeeded in passing legislation that imposed a deadline for the governor to act on such decisions, but it had a negligible effect on the process. Among the dozens of cases recommended for parole by the Parole Commission, the governor honored only two.

In California, which has a policy similar to Maryland's, Gov. Jerry Brown has accepted the parole board's action in 85 percent of the cases sent to his office. By contrast, in Maryland, Gov.Martin O'Malley has accepted the parole board's action in just 4 percent of the 50 cases sent to him.

A spokesperson for California's governor has said, "The parole board is an independent decision-making body, and its decisions are made by thoughtful and experienced commissioners that are well qualified to make parole determinations that do not jeopardize public safety."

We believe that Maryland's parole commissioners are equally qualified to make sound, just and fair decisions.

Maryland should come to grips with its record on this issue. We are among the worst of the worst states — third in the nation — when it comes to the proportion of young people serving life sentences. More than one of every 10 people serving a life sentence in Maryland was sent to prison as a teenager.

The MJRI applauds the Supreme Court's wise decision this month in Miller v. Alabama, a case that provides additional legal support for the sensible criminal justice policies we have sought for years. It's time for the General Assembly to review that decision and revisit the issue. If Maryland does not move to provide meaningful parole opportunities to teenagers sentenced to life in prison, the state may very well find itself in direct opposition to the Supreme Court's thinking about cruel and unusual punishment.

Maryland should have a fair parole system, especially when it comes to juvenile offenders.

Walter Lomax is project director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. His email is waltermandalalomax@hotmail.com.

 

 

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MARYLAND ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON RACIAL DISPARITIES IN MARYLAND INCARCERATION RATES.

We attended a briefing in Annapolis June 5 hosted by the Maryland Advisory Committee ON Racial Disparities in Maryland Incarceration Rates.

Personally, I would suffice it to say; anyone who doesn’t know that racial disparities exist in the criminal justice system, in Maryland, and the rest of the country is similar to the ostrich when sticking their head in the ground believes that because it cannot see you, you cannot see it. My statement to the commission was if the criminal justice system was a business it would be broke, because there is no return on its investment, and that when I went to prison over forty years ago it was doing the period of Dr. King’s dream, yet I emerge forty years later into what could be considered his nightmare. The problem has existed for some time; it is now time to be talking about solutions. Our attempt to address, and offer a solution to a small part of the problem was to present a few facts on our advocacy.

  According to a report release by the Sentencing Project ‘No Exit’ in 2009 there are over 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., and in a report released by  the JFA institute, ‘Unlocking America’ in 2007 of the 2,022,600 people incarcerated in America; 392.200, were Latino, 731,200 were white, and 899,200 were African Americans. 44.45% of the total population. If Africans Americans make up 13-14% of the total population then this is an overwhelming disproportionate representation of people of color.

Our area of focus is people serving life sentences, and long term incarceration: Of the total number of people serving life sentences in America 66.4% are people of color, for those who were juveniles when sentenced, 77% are youth of color.

In Maryland of the 2,600 people serving life sentences 76% are people of color.

And of the 269 Juveniles serving life sentences, 226 are Africans Americans, of the 19 serving life without parole 15 are people of color 78.9%

Some of these people have been incarcerated 20, 30, and in some cases 40 years or more. The parole commission consistently recommends people for parole, however, because in Maryland, California, and Oklahoma their release require a governor’s approval so they are being denied release. We have advocated, since 1996 to release the governor of this responsibility, finally in 2011 legislatures responded by passing legislation requiring the governor act within 180 days on any recommendation before his office. The governor responded by denying all but two of the 50 cases before his office. This year we advocated for two modest changes: Those persons sentenced when they were juveniles, and those convicted under the felony murder statute. Neither bill passed.

 Race may not necessarily be the cause of their continued incarceration; however, the fact that people of color are overwhelmingly disproportionately represented of this population, should be viewed with mitigating circumstances; i.e. their social, economic, and political status.

While our efforts may not address the overall disproportionate representation of people of colors incarceration, it does address an important segment of this population. We believe that the parole commissioners are highly qualified, and take every precaution when making their decisions, which should be final.

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Washington Post Op-ed

That Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is considering commuting the prison sentences of two people serving parole-eligible life sentences in Maryland suggests that grass-roots efforts to reform the laws governing these sentences are having an impact. But the release of Tamara Settle and Mark Farley Grant would do nothing to address the larger issue that keeps the other 50-plus "lifers" who have been recommended for release behind bars. From a public safety standpoint, or as a matter of fairness, it makes no sense to require a figure as political as a governor to give his stamp of approval to Maryland Parole Commission decisions.

With this recent announcement, O'Malley is acting on two clear cases of injustice. Having been imprisoned for close to 40 years for a crime I did not commit, I understand the importance of addressing such injustices and know how much it means to the people being considered and to their families. Grant was only 14 when he was convicted of a crime that the only witness later said he did not carry out. Settle has already served three times as long as the person who actually pulled the trigger in her case. Both should have been released years ago.

O'Malley might still act to address other examples of overly harsh sentences or even outright innocence. But all of the Marylanders given life sentences with the possibility of parole were told, and believed, that they would have a meaningful chance to return home one day if they behaved well, made serious efforts to rehabilitate themselves and accepted responsibility for the harm they caused. O'Malley, however, has turned down all those recommended for release since last March, demonstrating that this won't happen under the current system.

It's time to take the governor out of the process. That only 53 out of 2,500 people serving such parole-eligible life sentences have been recommended for early release shows that the members of the parole commission are being conservative and thoughtful in their decision-making. Clearly, they take seriously their responsibility to recommend release for only those whom they believe will not jeopardize public safety and will be successful when they reenter the community. Their decisions should stand.

This year, two modest fixes have been proposed in the Maryland Senate. These bills would exempt from gubernatorial review the two categories of life-term cases represented by Grant and Settle: those who were juveniles at the time of their offense, and those who were accessories, not principals, in the crime. Many people who have received life sentences made a bad decision to be involved in a felony but never killed or intended to kill anyone; to keep them locked up forever without any hope of release is not right. And virtually all countries have rejected life-without-parole sentences - which these sentences have effectively become in Maryland - for those who were children when they were sent to prison. In fact, the constitutionality of such sentences is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I have been working on this issue since my release in 2006 because there are many who have been in prison for decades who would be an asset to their families and communities if released. As it is, what hope they have had, what incentive that the possibility of parole has provided them to better themselves, has all but been stripped from them.It was one year ago, during a rally at the Capitol, that O'Malley echoed the words of one of his predecessors and told TV cameras that "life means life."

Former governor Parris Glendening has since taken those words back, stating that he no longer supported policies that did not allow parole consideration for people serving eligible life sentences. That the governor is willing to consider approving the parole commission's decision in two cases of clear injustice is a step in the right direction. Now the General Assembly needs to go further.

The writer is the executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/when-life-means-life-doesnt-mean-justice/2012/03/20/gIQA6rGbWS_story.html

 

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