When Stanley Mitchell went to prison 35 years ago for driving the getaway car in the fatal shooting of a business executive in Baltimore, he hoped for redemption.
His life sentence came with the possibility of parole, and Mitchell believed that if he reformed and learned true remorse, he had a chance for freedom.
“I was given a sentence that said if you do A, B and C, you’ll get D,” said Mitchell, who was 25 when he was convicted and now is 66. “But I did A, B and C, and I didn’t get D. That is the frustration.”
The Maryland Parole Commission recommended him for release three times, Mitchell said, but each time, the governor denied it. In fact, for the last 20 years, no Maryland governor has paroled a “lifer.” But Mitchell and others hope that will change as lawmakers in Annapolis consider bills this session that would leave decisions solely to the parole commission.
Advocates of reform say the current system amounts to more of a death sentence than a life sentence, injecting politics into a process that should be left to professional parole commissioners. But those in favor of maintaining the current system say the governor serves as an additional gatekeeper to prevent freeing someone who could commit more crimes upon release.
Mitchell did get out of prison two years ago — because the jury in his case was given flawed instructions. Prosecutors reached a deal with him that allowed his release.
From 1969 to 1995, Maryland governors paroled anywhere from 25 to 92 lifers during the course of their terms. But those releases came to a halt after Rodney Stokes, a convicted murderer with a life sentence, killed his girlfriend and committed suicide in 1993 while he was on work release. After that, Gov. Parris Glendening declared that “life means life.” Since then, no inmate who has received a life sentence has been released on parole.
“Because of politics, Maryland is spending millions of dollars every year incarcerating people who can safely return to their communities, at great human and financial cost to us all,” said Sonia Kumar, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
The state spends about $38,400 annually to incarcerate someone, Kumar said. If the state freed all the people the parole commission recommended for release since 2006, the state could have saved
$5.2 million for fiscal year 2014, according to a study Kumar wrote with the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative.
The bill would most impact inmates from the Baltimore area and Prince George’s County, where most of the 2,000 Maryland inmates who have received parole-eligible life sentences lived before becoming incarcerated. But not all would be released if the law were to change. Since 2006, the parole board sent only 63 parole recommendations to the governor, according to the ACLU study, called “Still Blocking the Exit.”
Sen. C. Anthony Muse, who represents District 26 covering Prince George’s County, is a co-sponsor of the parole reform bill. He said the state’s parole commission regularly spends time interviewing and meeting with inmates to carefully judge whether it would be a risk to have them return to society. The governor does not.
“It’s about one person having the power to change a life completely and that should not be,” Muse said during a hearing for Senate Bill 111.
Bob Ross, president of the Prince George’s branch of the NAACP, said many lifers recommended for release learn trades, go to school and eventually help rehabilitate younger inmates. Many are also in their 60s or older, making them unlikely to reoffend.
“If they’re doing these things in prison, they will come out and be productive citizens,” Ross said.
But, opponents of the bill warn that another Rodney Stokes could strike at any time.
Hal Riedl, retired from the Maryland Division of Corrections and from the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office, said approving the legislation would be “playing Russian roulette with public safety.”
“Some of them will find new victims,” Riedl told state senators at a committee hearing last week.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger also testified against the bill, saying lawmakers should seriously consider who is ultimately in charge for “making the decisions about the worst people in our criminal justice system.”
Leaving the final say to the governor — elected by voters — makes sense, Shellenberger said. “The person who has the keys to the jailhouse should be accountable to the citizens of Maryland,” Shellenberger said.
Inmates serving life sentences eligible for parole are considered for release after 15 years. A parole commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, meets with inmates, reviews their cases and requires psychological examinations before sending recommendations to the governor. Maryland is one of three states — including California and Oklahoma — that requires the governor to approve parole for lifers.
But a governor at the helm of parole decisions doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer inmates are released from prison. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has affirmed more than 80 percent of that state’s parole board decisions, releasing those serving life sentences in record numbers, according to news reports.
In Virginia, a law enacted in 1995 eliminated parole-eligible life sentences. About 4,000 inmates who received such sentences before 1995 can still be considered for release, though the commonwealth’s parole board rarely grants the requests, according to a 2014 study from the Justice Policy Institute. In the District, the U.S. Parole Commission decides whether the city’s inmates, who are parole-eligible after 10 years of a life sentence, should be released.
Ensuring justice for all involved in a crime is complicated, as Howard Shapiro, the son of Mitchell’s victim, can attest.
Howard Shapiro’s father, Leo Shapiro, died in 1979 while walking the family dog in a suburb of Baltimore. Leo Shapiro was 58 when he was fatally shot during a robbery attempt, his son said.
The death of his father, a Holocaust survivor and local grocery owner, wreaked havoc on the family — financially and emotionally — for decades, Howard Shapiro said. His father was killed in “cold blood,” he said. But he said he also understands there are problems with the U.S. criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates black men.
“Emotionally, I’m outraged, but intellectually, I can understand,” said Shapiro, 68. “The act and the repercussions to everyone, the perpetrator and the victims, it’s all tragic.”
Mitchell now lives in Waldorf with his wife, where he pays bills, teaches his stepdaughter to drive and goes bargain-hunting at Costco.
He said he’s so dedicated to being a law-abiding citizen in his second life that he doesn’t dare to speed or even sample a grape at the grocery store without paying first.
Mitchell said he was able to learn and change during his incarceration, understanding the things he did as a young man caused real pain to himself and others.
“I put myself in this situation,” Mitchell said. But “nobody gave me a death sentence.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Mitchell went to prison 41 years ago. He went to prison 35 years ago.