Opinions

When ‘life means life’ doesn’t mean justice

That Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) 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 Settles and Mark Farley Grant would do nothing to address the larger issue that keeps behind bars the other 50-plus “lifers” who have been recommended for release. 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. Settles 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 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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