O'Malley Is Far Behind Ehrlich's Clemency Pace in Md.

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

During his four years as governor of Maryland, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) drew national notice for the aggressive use of his executive clemency powers, pardoning or commuting the sentences of 249 convicts, including several serving life sentences for murder.

His successor, Gov. Martin O'Malley, has quietly but abruptly reversed that trend.

Nearly 2 1/2 years into his term, O'Malley is preparing to grant his first pardons, to seven people convicted years ago of such crimes as petty theft and disorderly conduct. Those cases were advertised Friday, as required by law, in a legal newspaper. O'Malley's only previous acts of clemency were releasing two prisoners who were in advanced stages of AIDS. Both were required to return if their conditions improved.

O'Malley (D), a former mayor of Baltimore, said he views clemency requests as less pressing than his other public-safety priorities, including expanding a state DNA database used to solve crimes.

"I suppose my orientation from being a big-city mayor and having seen the violence on our streets is more of a tough-on-crime orientation," he said. "You probably won't see me doing as many of these as past governors."

In an interview, Ehrlich declined to comment directly on O'Malley's approach but said he received little criticism for his more expansive approach.

"The criminal justice system has flaws, and it's the job of the governor, when appropriate, to correct those flaws," Ehrlich said. "When you try to make the system better, you don't get much criticism."

The state's last Democratic governor, Parris N. Glendening, was loath to commute life sentences, a view O'Malley said he shares. Glendening did pardon 134 former convicts during his eight years in office.

O'Malley's approach has raised concerns among those in the legal community who see the possibility of clemency as an incentive for offenders to improve their behavior and not offend again years after their release.

In Maryland, applicants for pardons must be crime-free for at least five years after they serve their sentences, including probation. Pardons can open doors for past offenders, including eligibility for jobs they would not otherwise be considered for.

"These are people who have been out many years, and they're looking for forgiveness," said Margaret Colgate Love, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in executive clemency cases across the country. "I think withholding this sort of official forgiveness is not sensible, and it's not safe."

Love said O'Malley's stance is also out of step with a growing number of governors, including Ehrlich, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential aspirant who came to realize the benefits of clemency despite apparent political risks.

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