By Tracy Velázquez and Walter Lomax
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the Maryland Parole Commission’s responsibilities is deciding whether someone serving a parole-eligible life sentence should be allowed to return to the community. They must evaluate whether someone is a threat to public safety; assess a person’s likelihood of being successfully reintegrated into society; look at the circumstances surrounding the original offense; and judge whether the person earned their release through their accomplishments and behavior while in prison. And the seriousness of the crime and the impact on those who were harmed must also be added to the equation. As of March 2010, only 59 out of over 2,500 “lifers” made it through this intensely rigorous process, and had their applications for either a parole or a commutation of their sentence (to a specific term of years) approved by the Commission and sent on to the Governor’s office for final approval.
As of the end of 2011, however, none of these 59 highly-vetted individuals have been reunited with families, or allowed to live out their senior years in the community, or had the chance to become productive members of society. This is because between last March and the end of 2011, the Governor has denied 40 commutation requests, 3 medical parole requests, and 5 parole requests; the remaining 11 await his decision.
Last year, the Maryland Assembly passed legislation that limited the time in which the Governor can deny a lifer’s parole to a period of 180 days after Commission approval. His actions to date indicate how he is likely to act on both the existing positive parole recommendations and those that will land on his desk in the next two years. With that in mind, several bills are currently moving through the Assembly to take the decision to parole out of the governor’s hands whatsoever for certain people. One bill would address the issue of those who were juveniles at the time they were sentenced; for all intents and purposes they were given a ‘juvenile-life-without-parole’ sentence, something almost all countries reject as harsh and inhumane punishment. The other bill looks at those who themselves didn’t commit a murder but who were in some way involved in a crime during which someone died. If passed, these bills would allow the Parole Commission to have final authority over these two groups of “lifers.” The majority of those serving life sentences, however, would not be affected.
It may be too much to ask any individual, particularly someone who must run for office every four years and who has no professional training in risk assessments or other parole issues, to have the responsibility of deciding whether someone should be paroled. The Parole Commission was set up so a group of well-trained people, one step removed from the political process, can bear that burden. Giving the Governor authority over release decisions makes a mockery of the parole process, and ill serves the people of Maryland.
This post originally appeared on the Open Society Institute-Baltimore's blog "Audacious Ideas."
Tracy Velázquez is the executive director of JPI.
Walter Lomax is Executive Director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative.