Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced yesterday that he will refuse to approve parole for inmates serving life sentences, a policy that could ensure that the state's most violent felons will grow old and die in prison.

Using a state prison in Jessup as a backdrop for his news conference, Glendening (D) said: "We owe it to the victims, the victims' families and to our communities to ensure that these murderers and rapists -- these predators -- serve the life sentences imposed on them. . . . If you want to term this more as retribution . . . it's exactly that."

Glendening said he would make exceptions only in rare cases in which the inmate is terminally ill or "very old." He said his policy will apply to murderers and rapists with life sentences, or 97 percent of the 1,734 Maryland inmates serving life terms behind bars.

In Maryland, the Parole Commission can release inmates serving limited sentences, but any parole of a felon serving life must be approved by the governor. Since 1980, Maryland governors have approved 90 such paroles, an average of six a year.

The commission recently recommended that Glendening parole eight prisoners with life sentences, all of whom had committed murder or rape. They ranged in age from 42 to 60, and each had spent from 18 to 27 years in prison. Glendening said he rejected all eight recommendations and told the parole board to stop sending such cases to his desk.

Glendening's new policy is less severe than the action taken by the Virginia legislature in 1994, when it voted to abolish parole for all inmates, including those serving sentences less than life. Virginia's decision was spurred by Gov. George Allen, a Republican who campaigned on a promise to end parole.

As part of his campaign last year, Glendening, a moderate Democrat, said he would make Maryland safer from crime. But his platform contained few details, and he has focused more heavily on economic development in his first eight months in office.

The governor said he announced his new policy yesterday because it was time to tell Marylanders that "a life sentence means life."

Several lawyers said Glendening's announcement was more symbolic than substantive. They noted that the parole board recommends relatively few releases of violent felons and that the governor already has the authority to reject all of them.

"He could have done this quietly," said Ed Koren, a lawyer for the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "He wanted to send the message that I'm not going to take any risks whatsoever.' " Koren said some convicted murderers -- especially those who killed an acquaintance in a fit of passion -- are good risks for parole because they are unlikely to act violently again.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard), said: "I think it's his job to review each case individually. I would think in most cases life in prison' ought to mean life in prison. Nevertheless, the Constitution and the law gives the governor discretion that he ought to be exercising. I think it's a little bit of grandstanding."

Others, however, said they were happy to see Glendening make official a no-parole policy for violent inmates with life terms. "It's nice to have it articulated and carried out," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner (D).

Glendening said his policy will cost virtually nothing because it will be coupled with new efforts at "alternative sentencing" for nonviolent convicts. Such methods could include more home detention and drug treatment, which would move some inmates out of expensive prison cells, he said. CAPTION: GOV. PARRIS N. GLENDENING