EARLY IN HIS term, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) signaled he would use his clemency powers -- including commutations for certain criminals serving lengthy prison sentences -- more open-mindedly than did his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening. That seemed reasonable enough, considering that Mr. Glendening scowled at almost all petitions for clemency, with little regard for their individual merits. Now Mr. Ehrlich has wisely started granting clemency for a special category of convicts whose heavy prison sentences have been called into question by the state legislature's own actions.
The convicts in question are burglars who have already been in prison for at least 10 years, in some cases more than 20. All were sentenced under Maryland's three-strikes law, which metes out mandatory 25-year sentences with no parole for convicts who commit a third "crime of violence." But here's the wrinkle: All were convicted on their third strike for what was known as "daytime housebreaking" before mid-1994, when the Maryland General Assembly reclassified that crime from a violent to a nonviolent offense -- that is, an offense no longer covered by the state's three-strikes law. In other words, had these inmates committed their crimes after 1994, none would have faced mandatory 25-year prison terms; some would probably have served sentences of three years, the maximum penalty for what Maryland's criminal code now defines as fourth-degree burglary, a misdemeanor.
Two years ago, then-Gov. Glendening denied a petition for clemency on behalf of some of the 75 or so convicts who fall into this category. But this year Mr. Ehrlich began reviewing their cases and has already commuted the sentences of seven, making them eligible for parole. All are in their forties or fifties. One of them, David Baker, is a father of two and a founder of an intervention program for at-risk youth. Another, Ronnie Blunt, is an Army veteran who has already been incarcerated nearly 20 years. As it happens, many of the inmates convicted for daytime housebreaking before 1994, including those whose cases Mr. Ehrlich is reviewing most closely -- have no history of violent offenses.
Burglary is not a trivial offense. Anyone whose house has been burgled knows it can be traumatic -- a violation of personal space that instills fear, anxiety and suspicion in the place it is least welcome: one's home. Burglaries can and do sometimes turn violent. Repeat burglars are a particular menace, and the state has a legitimate interest in treating multiple offenders more harshly than first-time criminals. But the Maryland legislature itself downgraded the crime that triggered these convicts' 25-year sentences; they are all serving a sentence they could not receive today. As the original petition for clemency on their behalf put it: "Bad fortune should not have such a draconian effect on individual lives."
Mr. Ehrlich, always eager to affirm his credentials as a moderate Republican, says he has long believed that prison is not the most appropriate place for society to deal with nonviolent offenders. Now, by continuing to review these convicts' sentences on a case-by-case basis, he has a chance to display the courage of his convictions.