They were sentenced to life in prison. Who should decide if they get a second chance?

The long shadow of ‘truth in sentencing’ politics in Maryland, where the vast majority of lifers are Black.

A view of the Jessup Correctional Institution this month in Maryland. Many lifers eligible for parole may be affected by the decision of the Maryland state legislature to strip the governor of the power to overturn parole board recommendations.
A view of the Jessup Correctional Institution this month in Maryland. Many lifers eligible for parole may be affected by the decision of the Maryland state legislature to strip the governor of the power to overturn parole board recommendations. (Michael Robinson-Chavez/The Washington Post)

Nineteen years after Darryl Taylor was sentenced to life for a murder he says he did not commit, a board of parole commissioners recommended him for early release. The feeling, he remembers, was like standing with one foot out the prison gates, close enough to Baltimore to see his childhood home, his wife and his five living children.

But Taylor never made it out. In 2020, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) rejected his release, overturning the decision of the 11-member parole board. No reasons were given.

“That was a crushing feeling,” Taylor, 50, said last fall from a medium-security prison in Jessup, Md. “You feel like you’re on the verge of having some sort of freedom, and they hand you a piece of paper that just says, ‘no.’ ”

For decades, politics has shaped the parole process for those serving life sentences in Maryland. In the heat of a tough-on-crime campaign in the 1990s, a governor declared that he would reject all “lifers” for parole even after parole commissioners had recommended their release. The policy, maintained by governors from both parties, left hundreds of prisoners with parole-eligible sentences — the vast majority of them Black men — to grow old and die in prison.

Between 1969 and 1994, Maryland paroled 181 lifers. In the following two decades, none.

When the murder of George Floyd set off a wave of racial justice activism across the country, nearly 80 percent of Maryland’s lifer population was Black, the highest rate in the nation. Hogan released some prisoners as the coronavirus pandemic took off, but state lawmakers, buoyed by the Floyd protests, wanted the governor out of the parole process. They voted in December to revoke his authority over parole, taking one of the most concrete steps nationwide to change the prospects of early release for lifers, and pushing men like Taylor into a new state of limbo.

Racial disparity looms

large over life sentences

in Maryland prisons

0

1960

Total number of White and Black

people who have started life

sentences statewide from

1960 to 2021

1970

1980

500

1,000

1990

1,500

2000

2,000

2010

2020

718

2,489

Source: Maryland Department of Public Safety

and Correctional Services

THE WASHINGTON POST

Racial disparity looms large over

life sentences in Maryland prisons

0

1960

Total number of White and Black people who

have started life sentences statewide from

1960 to 2021

1970

1980

500

1,000

1990

1,500

2000

2,000

2010

2020

718

2,489

Source: Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services

THE WASHINGTON POST

Racial disparity looms large over

life sentences in Maryland prisons

0

1960

Total number of White and Black people who have started

life sentences statewide from 1960 to 2021

1970

1980

500

1,000

1990

1,500

2000

2,000

2010

2020

718

2,489

Source: Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services

THE WASHINGTON POST

In the coming months, Taylor and others who have seen their paths to freedom blocked by the sitting governor will go up again before a parole board. Criminal justice advocates across the country say they’ll be watching.

About 1 in 7 prisoners in the United States — or about 203,000 people — are serving life sentences. Nearly half are Black and fewer than a third are White — a racial gap that is bigger even than in the general prison population. And, although three-quarters of lifers are eligible for early release under certain conditions, an increasingly small fraction have managed to experience freedom before the end of their lives — a legacy of the 1990s, when states pursued “truth in sentencing” laws that drastically curbed parole.

The notion of releasing violent offenders convicted of crimes such as rape or murder has long been a thorny issue. In recent decades, even as criticism of mass incarceration drove officials to alter policing and sentencing rules, few paid attention to the country’s ballooning lifer population, which has quintupled since 1984.

But examining this kind of post-conviction reform is vital, advocates say, not only because it affects masses of American families but because it tests a community’s fundamental beliefs in criminal justice.

Victims’ rights groups and states’ attorneys in Maryland have for years argued that people sentenced to life had done irreparable harm and that the governor served as a vital check on the case for their freedom. Civil rights groups said that having the governor involved politicized parole and kept families separated for longer than was necessary or constitutional — at the cost to taxpayers of more than $70 million per year.

“The parole process, I think, really brings that choice — not only a choice of the criminal process — a choice about what society we believe in,” said Parris Glendening (D), a former Maryland governor who has seen his own position on the issue evolve over three decades. “Do we believe in redemption and rehabilitation, or do we believe primarily in punishment and revenge?”

Former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) declared in 1995 that inmates serving a life sentence would be denied any chance of parole. Here's why he regrets it. (Video: Amber Ferguson, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

Life means life

The policy that has blocked Taylor from freedom took root five years before he was sentenced to life.

With crime as the leading concern among voters in the mid-1990s, then-President Bill Clinton was determined to move the Republican-dominated issue to the top of the Democratic agenda.

“Let us roll up our sleeves to roll back this awful tide of violence and reduce crime in this country,” Clinton said during a 1994 ceremony to sign the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. “We have the tools now. Let us get about the business of using them.”

A year later, a newly elected Glendening, who had squeaked to victory by fewer than 6,000 votes and held an abysmal 18 percent approval rating, stood before the old House of Corrections, declaring that he would not grant parole to any inmate serving a life sentence.

“If you want to term this more as retribution … it’s exactly that,” Glendening 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.”

A month later, his poll numbers nearly doubled. It was in part because of his stance, said a former Glendening adviser.


During the news conference, Glendening said the parole board had, at that point, recommended release for eight inmates serving life sentences. He rejected all of them and would not consider any others.

Walter Lomax, arrested in 1967 for murder, was among the eight. When word of Glendening’s edict spread to the state prison in Hagerstown, where Lomax was locked up, he didn’t cry or lash out in anger. He was emotionless, he remembered.

“I just resigned myself that as long as the governor was a part of the process, I was never going to be paroled,” said Lomax, who had always maintained his innocence and conclusively proved it in 2006, when he was freed from prison after 39 years. As of today, he is still the longest-imprisoned exoneree in Maryland.

Before his release — and even more fervently after — Lomax pushed legislators to consider lifers. He found an audience in his father’s friend, then-Del. Clarence Davis (D), of Baltimore, who was teaching history to prisoners.

Davis, who is Black, said too many of the men and women he encountered looked like him. He first attempted to remove the governor from the parole process in 1995 but failed and tried again the following year. He knew it would be a tough sell politically, especially amid a rising victims rights movement led by Roberta Roper, whose daughter Stephanie, a 22-year-old college senior, was brutally raped and murdered in 1982.

Maryland’s history of

life sentences

Annual count of admitted life-sentenced

inmates from 1960 to 2021

100 inmates

75

50

Life sentencing

peaked in the

early 1990s,

when Maryland

took a tougher

stance on crime

25

0

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

2020

Source: Maryland Department of Public Safety

and Correctional Services

THE WASHINGTON POST

Maryland’s history of life sentences

Annual count of admitted life-sentenced

inmates from 1960 to 2021

100 inmates

75

50

Life sentencing

peaked in the early

1990s, when

Maryland took a

tougher stance

on crime

25

0

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

2020

Source: Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services

THE WASHINGTON POST

Maryland’s history of life sentences

Annual count of admitted life-sentenced inmates from 1960 to 2021

100 inmates

75

50

Life sentencing peaked in the

early 1990s, when Maryland

took a tougher stance

on crime

25

0

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

2020

Source: Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services

THE WASHINGTON POST

With Glendening as the unofficial head of the Democratic Party, Davis knew there was no chance the bill would move, even with the support of some of his colleagues.

“What happens with legislation like this, when the governor gives a signal that he will not sign it,” Davis said in a recent interview, “it’s almost a death blow.”

Two lives lost

Amber Taylor was in the fifth grade when her father was sentenced to life in prison.

As the oldest of six children, she had gotten the most time with him before the summer of 2000, when two people told police that he had shot a man named Douglas M. Jones dead at Gwynn Oak and Liberty Heights avenues in Baltimore. The witnesses recanted their statements during the trial, alleging that detectives at the Baltimore Police Department had pressured them to make up the story and that they hadn’t been at the crime scene at all.

But this didn’t change the verdict. Darryl Taylor, a jury decided, was guilty of first-degree murder.

A relative of Jones’s read out a letter from the victim’s mother at his sentencing: “Dear Darryl,” it started, “because of your disregard for human life, you ended the life of my beloved son.”

“From me, his mother, you have taken one of the most precious gifts that God could give a parent, a loving child. From his son and two-year-old little boy, you have stolen his pride and joy, a loving father.”

“So Darryl,” the letter continued, “I’m praying that the State of Maryland give you the maximum penalty allowed and to provide assurance to society that you Darryl Miguel Taylor will never be able to cause another family to suffer the pain in which me and my family are having to endure.”

Judge Paul Alpert sentenced Darryl to life for murder plus 20 years for using a handgun in an act of violence, to be served concurrently.

“This case is, indeed, a tragedy because in effect two lives are lost,” Alpert told the court. “Mr. Jones … is lost to his family and his friends, and in practical effect so is the life of Mr. Taylor lost.”

Family members of Jones did not respond to inquiries for this article.

In 2001, Amber began visiting her father in prison, telling him about classes and cheerleading, speaking with him in a room that lay on the other side of metal detectors and a pat-down by security guards. By the time she was in middle school, she realized her younger siblings were starting to forget what Taylor had been like as a free man, so she took it upon herself to remember — how he was serious about school and funny about life; how he read with her from an encyclopedia set in her grandfather’s house; the way he beamed when he bought her souvenirs in Washington.

Amber mailed photos of important moments to her father. But so much happened that she couldn’t share: anniversaries, graduations, weddings. The birth of his four grandchildren.

The loss of his daughter, Summer, to suicide in 2016.

For Darryl Taylor, the pain had been excruciating. Summer had been only 3 and still babbling in baby talk when he left. She grew into a shy teenager who loved animals and the band Maroon 5, but he had missed it all. He asked himself repeatedly whether things might have turned out differently if he had been there for her — if he had been home.

Amber wondered the same.

Taylor didn’t advance past an initial hearing the first time he went up for parole in 2014. But the year after Summer’s death, he told his family that he would try again.

The process was laborious, with multiple hearings in front of commissioners, a risk assessment, a psychological evaluation and a review of his institutional record. Taylor’s wife, Jene Traore, and Amber helped him put together a “home plan” laying out what his life would look like if he were released, and state officials called them to verify each detail. As Taylor’s family sketched out his possible life at home, they started to believe, as many families do at this stage, that it might happen — he might come home.

In reality, the vast majority of lifers are not recommended for parole the first or second time they apply — and many never succeed. The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services would not say how many lifers the parole board had recommended annually for release since 1990, but attorneys and advocates said the number has dwindled since Glendening’s policy.

State records show that more than half of Maryland’s lifers resemble Taylor — Black men who were imprisoned between the ages of 18 and 24. Taylor didn’t know of many being paroled, but as he put together his application in 2019, he tried to stay optimistic. His wife, who was working as a legislative assistant in the Maryland General Assembly at the time, told him that momentum was starting to coalesce in Annapolis around parole reform.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland was making headway in a federal lawsuit that argued it was unconstitutional for the state to categorically deny parole to lifers. And the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization, had released a report marking five years since the 2013 court case Unger v. Maryland, which released 200 geriatric lifers back into society. The “Ungers” had a recidivism rate of less than 3 percent, the report said, and ought to serve as a model for the reduction of long sentences nationwide.


Amid all this, in 2018, Glendening came out of retirement to say that he had been “completely wrong” about parole. As governor, he had been guided by politics, not public safety, he said. And he was sorry, he told the public, that his policy had already been carried over and embraced by subsequent administrations.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who succeeded Glendening, lessened the sentences for 21 lifers but paroled none. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who came after, released two lifers for medical reasons but none under regular parole.

In November 2019, after Hogan’s reelection and in the face of mounting pressure from advocates, he made headlines for releasing a trio of juvenile lifers, becoming the first Maryland governor to do so in 24 years. He would go on to release more lifers than his three predecessors combined — most of them during the pandemic — but he still rejected more than half of the recommendations that landed on his desk, including, in March 2020, one bearing Taylor’s name. In the past eight years, state records show, 191 inmates serving parole-eligible life sentences have died in prison.


It can take weeks or even months for lifers to tell their families that they’ve been rejected for release in the final stage. Others find themselves sobbing as they report the news, finding little else to say except: “I’m sorry.” Taylor was stoic when he called his family, although internally, he said, he felt like he was being suffocated by a straitjacket.

Amber berated herself when she found out. She should have known better, she told herself, than to have trusted that the system would work for a family like hers. But Traore told her not to give up. She had spent her career in Annapolis and knew how laws were made and changed.

There was another way.

The fight in Annapolis

For decades, leaders in the Maryland Senate would not allow lawmakers to vote on bills that would alter parole for lifers.

A powerful victim’s rights group had strong allies in Annapolis, and senators “were worried about how people would look at them, their potential voter base,” said state Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D), who was elected in 1994 as the first Black senator from Baltimore County.

She and other Black lawmakers persisted. And in recent years, Kelley took over leadership on the issue, pushing, as Davis had done years earlier, for a bill that would revoke the governor’s authority over parole. When Kelley tried in 2020, two influential opponents of the change — longtime Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and state Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) — were no longer in place. Her bill passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Then, a Minneapolis police officer killed Floyd, igniting a reckoning with criminal justice that boosted existing efforts in Maryland. By the time lawmakers returned to Annapolis in January 2021, a historic package of criminal justice bills was taking shape. Kelley saw an opening.

Opposition, however, was still fierce. In discussions over the bill, Republican lawmakers accused Democrats of tinkering with the line “between good and evil.” Advocates at the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center lamented what they thought was a blatant disregard for victims, whom they had advised for years to contact the governor directly on parole matters. They didn’t appreciate losing “an extra ear,” said executive director Kurt W. Wolfgang, who wrote to Hogan, urging him to veto the legislation.

The governor did, forcing the legislature to bring the bill up for a veto override in December.

“The trend now is toward people believing that the enlightened position is that [lifers] ought to be given second chances,” Wolfgang, a former prosecutor in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, said in November, weeks before the override vote. “But people don’t serve a life sentence because they received a life sentence. They serve a life sentence because they take a knife and stab someone twenty-four times. … They serve a life sentence because of the horrific, vile, disgusting acts that they took that ruined other people’s lives.”

Wolfgang said he doesn’t believe rehabilitation and life imprisonment are mutually exclusive. But criminal justice and criminology experts broadly agree that for many offenders, having a meaningful shot at freedom is vital in helping them to change.

“Parole is a reward and an incentive and a motivation,” said David R. Blumberg, a Republican who chairs the Maryland Parole Commission and has served on the body for 19 years. “People can and do change over the course of time. … But without the chance for parole, they lose hope.”

Those who advocate for lifers say they recognize that having them released might be traumatizing for victims, but they wonder whether it is worthwhile — or just — for the state to keep people imprisoned indefinitely. Studies show that recidivism rates among lifers tend to be far lower than for other criminals, especially once they reach their 40s and “age out” of crime. After being released, said Keith Wallington at the Justice Policy Institute, many lifers become mentors in the violent neighborhoods where they grew up, helping to strengthen rather than weaken public safety.

One of Taylor’s prison mates at Jessup, John Ristick, was sentenced in 1985 at age 16 for stabbing a man to death with a kitchen knife. He had been sexually abused by his father as a child, he said, and was regularly consuming drugs and alcohol when he met his victim in a bar in Baltimore. Ristick was recommended for parole in 2020, but his petition was rejected by Hogan, who noted that he had incurred five infractions while in prison and proposed that “a longer period without additional infractions will more conclusively demonstrate his rehabilitation.”

Ristick, who says he became a Christian while in prison, said that Hogan’s letter left him confused. The last of his five infractions had been recorded in 1996 — for being in a chapel when he was supposed to be at work.

“We need to remember that the parole commission has been specially trained,” Kelley told her colleagues during the floor debate on whether to override Hogan’s veto. “They have the expertise; they are following social science. They are objective in ways that governors are not.”

Over two chilly December days, two-thirds of the General Assembly voted in agreement with her. News of the vote traveled quickly into the state’s prisons. At Jessup, some lifers shared a moment of silence for those who had died in prison after being rejected for release by Hogan and his predecessors. At the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, some inmates called Lomax, who had watched the voting at the State House in Annapolis.

“They’re now thinking,” Lomax said, “as to what’s going to come next.”

A broken process

Taylor woke up and sat bleary-eyed by his bunk on a recent morning as he waited for his 45-minute slot to wash, eat, exercise and make calls. Group activities had been canceled, and his courses at Goucher College were shifting back online as the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus swept the world within and beyond Jessup’s walls.

Excitement over the vote had faded, and anxiety was taking its place.

As of late January, weeks after the bill was meant to take effect, state officials still had not released guidelines on whether — or how — the parole board would change its review process for lifers now that the governor is not involved in the process. Hogan had started returning parole applications to the parole board, but the body wasn’t saying whether it would assess the applicants again or set them free. Meanwhile, at the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, advocates have been telling clients about the new law and urging them to become more involved in offenders’ parole process.

“We’re, of course, going to be worried about every single case,” Wolfgang said.

What happens next in Maryland could set the stage for changes that affect tens of thousands of prisoners serving life sentences, advocates say. Oklahoma, one of two states where governors still have a role in parole decisions, has started to debate the role of politics in granting paroles, pardons and commutations. In Pennsylvania, where more than 5,000 are imprisoned with no possibility of parole, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing for old or sick inmates to be considered for early release. And in Massachusetts, a lawmaker whose brother was killed in a homicide is calling for the state to completely ban sentences of life without parole.

“This is the most momentum, by far, that we’ve seen of parole reform,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior researcher at the Sentencing Project, which studies racial disparities in America’s carceral system. “There’s increasing recognition that our prisons are full because there’s this broken process of getting people out.”

In Jessup, Taylor has been waiting to find out the date of his next parole hearing, which will mark the start of a year-long long process to determine whether he is fit for release.

When he feels himself dwelling on whether commissioners will come to the same conclusion about him that they did two years ago or what his life could look like outside prison, he tries to distract himself by talking to other inmates or by reading. He doesn’t want to be crushed again.

“I’m just trying not to get stuck too much in my head,” Taylor said over the phone. “Because it’s back in their hands, you know? It’s up to them.”

Alice Crites and Chris Alcantara contributed to this report.

About this story

Editing by Katy Burnell Evans. Copy editing by Anjelica Tan and Gilbert Dunkley. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Audio by Sabby Robinson. Video by Amber Ferguson. Design by J.C. Reed.

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