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 recommmended 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 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 Settles: 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 Glendenning 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.
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