Profiles in Courage/Collateral Consequence

On June 2, 1993, Rodney Stokes who was in the work release and family leaves programs committed murder suicide. On June 3, 1993 all persons in those programs serving parole eligible life sentences were removed from those programs, and returned to medium security facilities. Even after maintaining excellent institutional records to qualify for those programs, they are being punished for a senseless crime that no one could have predicted. To add insult to injury, in September 1995, the setting governor announced that he would no longer consider any parole request for ‘Lifers’, and instituted a policy that ‘Life means Life.’ (All of these individuals are, or were serving parole eligible life sentences.) This is why the legislation introduced SB-249 & its companion’s bill in the House should be voted on favorably.

On June 2, 1993, Rodney Stokes who was in the work release and family leaves programs committed murder suicide. On June 3, 1993 all persons in those programs serving parole eligible life sentences were removed from those programs, and returned to medium security facilities. Even after maintaining excellent institutional records to qualify for those programs, they are being punished for a senseless crime that no one could have predicted. To add insult to injury, in September 1995, the setting governor announced that he would no longer consider any parole request for ‘Lifers’, and instituted a policy that ‘Life means Life.’ (All of these individuals are, or were serving parole eligible life sentences.) This is why the legislation introduced SB-249 & its companion’s bill in the House should be voted on favorably.

After many years of continued advocacy to change the ‘Life means Life’ policy, in 2011 the general assembly passed legislation giving any setting governor 180 days to make a decision on recommendations sent to the office. Shortly after the legislation took effect in 2012, the governor denied all 57 petitions sent to his desk. Ironically, in 2012 the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a decision, now known as the Unger decision. The decision mandated that anyone convicted prior to 1980, tried by a jury, were entitled to new trials because of unconstitutional jury instructions.  The actions taken by legislators in 2011 should be applauded, because they recognized the system was not operating according to legislative intent. However, legislators did not go far enough, the actions taken by the governor in response to the legislation was arbitrary, capricious, and politically motivated. This is why politics should be removed from the parole process.

This change would not create a mass exodus of persons serving parole eligible life sentences just a sensible approach to what has proven to work in the past; giving these individuals a meaningful opportunity at release. The parole process would still be under the executive branch’s authority, because the governor would still appoint the parole commissioners.

Starting in May 2013 lifers began being released, over 170 people has been released under the Unger decision so far; all were serving parole eligible life sentences. Of those released, at least 17 were of the 57 denied parole by the governor in 2012. Along with the other 153, the majority have made successful transitions back into society. Some of them are profiled in a report we produced, “Still Blocking the Exit.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of people willing to make a change.” –We are those tireless and persistent advocates, people willing to work for that change.

The popular term, Mass incarceration is used to describe the current criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” are two excellent books to understand some aspects of the disproportional representation of minorities, specifically African American males, impacted by this system. In Maryland there are 22,087 individuals currently incarcerated, (2100 are serving parole eligible life sentences) with a staging number on parole or probation. The numbers are even more compelling when counting those who have criminal records. Maryland spends over 288 million dollars a year on its criminal justice system.

The late TV Actor Jack Webb, who played the character ‘Joe Friday’ in the series ‘Dragnet’, made this famous saying popular, “Just the facts please.” Well these are just the facts.

America has the highest incarceration population in the world. In the 1970’s there were a little over 300,000 people incarcerated, today there are over 2.3 million, with 6 million on parole or probation, over 8.3 million people directly connected to the criminal justice system, with an estimated 20 million more with criminal records.

The collateral consequences of this are staggering, because of the many barriers to succeed, i.e. employment, housing, education, voting, and the many others, not to mention the devastating effects this has on neighborhoods and communities. The circumstances of a person’s crime(s) will never change, but people can, and often times do.

The time line for persons released serving parole eligible life sentences is indicative of this:

TIMELINE (1969-present)

-1969 Governor Marvin Mandel takes office, Paroles 92 lifers during his two terms.

-1979 Governor Harry Hughes takes office, Approves parole for 64 lifers during office.

-1987 Governor Donald Schaefer takes office. During his tenure, paroles 25 lifers.

-1993 Rodney Stokes, a lifer who is on work release, takes the life of his girlfriend before taking his own life.

-1995 Governor Parris Glendenning takes office. Announces that, even though judges believed lifers would be paroled, “life means life” and he will not parole any Maryland lifers. He has since stated that he regrets his approach.

-In the course of his eight years in office, Glendenning rejects every parole request.

-1999 Maryland Court of Appeals, in Lomax v. Warden, holds that Governor’s announcement did not violate the rights of lifers who were being denied parole. Subsequent legal challenges on other grounds also fail.

-2003 Governor Robert Ehrlich takes office. No lifers are paroled. Five are commuted.

-2007 Governor Martin O’Malley takes office, Takes no action on pending requests.

-2011 Confronted with evidence that no lifers are being paroled and that pending requests are held in limbo for years, General Assembly modifies statute to require Governor to act upon Parole Commission recommendation within 180 days. On the day of the hearing, the Governor announces he has rejected seven commutation requests for lifers.

-2012 Forced by law to act, Governor denies the dozens of pending recommendations, Commutes 3 others.

-2012 Court of Appeals issues Unger v. Maryland, finding that, in the 1970s, Maryland juries were wrongly instructed on how to assess the guilt of the people before them, resulting in the possibility of new trials for more than 200 people still incarcerated.

-2013 Individuals begin coming home in the wake of Unger. Over (170) people have come home and are making successful transitions. At least 17 of the people who have come home were previously recommended for release, dozens of others previously recommended are still incarcerated.

 

The Hogan administration has taken some action, especially in light of the juvenile class action law suit filed by the ACLU, however it has not addressed the cause of the problem, the politicization’ of the parole process.

 

It cost the state approximately $38,000 (this is a generous figure) a years to warehouse these individuals, while it cost $14,000 a year on parole or probation. In calculating the savings, 170 X 38,000 dollars a year that’s 6,460,000 a year. Over the four years since 2013 that would be 25, 840,000 dollars saved. There are no costs in the fiscal note to implement what we are seeking. The one line in the statute requiring the Governor’s signature, for people serving parole eligible life sentences to be released.

These people were sentenced with the understanding that they would have a meaningful opportunity for release if they were rehabilitated. Many were expected to serve less than 20 years, and have now served twice that much time, and more.

Studies have shown that people serving life sentences have lower recidivism rates than those convicted of less serious crimes. The success of those released due to the Unger case demonstrates that lifers can return home without compromising public safety.

Parole decisions are best left with parole commissioners, who have expertise, using a thorough process, vetting these individuals decades or more. Without a change, Maryland will continue to spend millions to incarcerate an elderly and aging prison population, who could live safely in the community, simply because of politics. Legislators are urged to consider passing legislation to do away with this mundane and archaic parole policy. They should be encouraged to spend our taxpaying dollars more wisely.

Hope and the longing for reward lay at the heart of every human endeavor, in its absents, there is no incentive for anyone to change. These men and women continue to demonstrate that they deserve a meaningful opportunity at release, in spite of their circumstance. Quoting the esteemed Frederick Douglass; “Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will.”

 

Walter Lomax, Executive Director

Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative

Waltermandalalomax@hotmail.com

mrji4phases@yahoo.com

mrji.org

mandalaenterprise.org

443-413-6076

 

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