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Glendening, former Md. governor, says he was wrong to deny ‘lifers’ early release

Former Maryland governors Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), left, and Parris N. Glendening (D) spoke about criminal justice reform at a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform.
Former Maryland governors Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), left, and Parris N. Glendening (D) spoke about criminal justice reform at a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

Former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening, who declared in 1995 that he would not grant early release to any prisoner serving a life sentence, denounced that stance Wednesday as “completely wrong” and called on legislators to remove the governor from the parole process.

Glendening, a Democrat, spoke at a news conference in Annapolis with former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, as the Maryland General Assembly considers criminal justice bills, including one that would end a requirement for the governor to sign off on the parole of inmates sentenced to life.

Maryland is one of three states that grants the governor this authority. Since Glendening’s declaration that “a life sentence means life,” no governor has signed off on a parole board’s recommendation to release a lifer who committed a crime before turning 18.

“This really is a no-win power,” said Glendening, who served as governor from 1995 to 2003, addressing “all governors and would-be governors” at a news conference hosted by the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform.

“Ask someone to take this away from you,” Glendening said. “If you approve a parole, you will be criticized. If you refuse to grant parole, you will be criticized.”

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) opposes efforts to leave decisions on lifers entirely up to the parole board. Facing legal and political pressure to overhaul the parole system, he issued an executive order last month that formalizes the process and says the governor should state the reason for opposing parole each time he does so.

“At the end of the day, these decisions must be made by a person who is directly accountable to Maryland citizens,” said Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer. “Putting this into the hands of a largely unaccountable committee is illogical and diminishes public safety.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the legality of Maryland’s parole system in court.

Ehrlich commuted scores of sentences while in office from 2003 to 2007, including life terms for murder, and earned plaudits from advocates of criminal justice reform. He did not echo Glendening’s call on Wednesday.

“I see both sides,” he said, adding that, as a former governor, he likes to protect governors’ prerogatives. The Republican said he would keep private his advice on the subject to Hogan — who served as his appointments secretary.

Both Ehrlich and Glendening said they were not advocating for specific bills being considered by the legislature but were emphasizing the importance of smart criminal justice reforms.

“You talk about the great purple issue of our time,” Ehrlich said, referring to bipartisan support. “Its time has come.”

The bill to remove the governor’s pardon power has had hearings in the Senate and House. Last year, a similar measure moved out of the House but stalled after a tie vote, with one person absent, in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who chairs the committee, said the bill raises difficult legal and constitutional questions. He said his committee has discussed the measure but has not decided whether it will come up for a vote.

Glendening, who has previously, though more quietly, disavowed his former position, said relegating all prisoners to life without parole means a “loss of hope” for them and their families and a financial burden for residents who pay for the health care of geriatric inmates.

“Whether you are a fiscal conservative or a social progressive or both, this is the right thing to do,” Glendening said.

Ehrlich, a lawyer by training, now provides legal services to people seeking pardons or commutations through a partnership at the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University. He said he has focused his advocacy in recent years at the federal level but still believes “states really are a policy laboratory” for reforms.

The state Senate delayed action Wednesday on a bill that would fund anti-crime initiatives in Baltimore and increase the penalties for several violent offenses, in large part to address escalating violence in the city.

The measure incorporated a number of bills submitted earlier in the session, including by ­Hogan, softening some of the governor’s provisions. But advocates said they are concerned about extending prison sentences for violent offenders. They accused Zirkin’s Judicial Proceedings Committee of negotiating some of the changes behind closed doors.

“We all know tougher sentences work really well on the campaign trail, but we had hoped that a more thoughtful approach would have come out of committee,” said Ricardo Flores, director of government relations for the state Office of the Public Defender.

Zirkin said the legislation — which will be heard Thursday — has the support of Hogan, Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) and members of the Baltimore delegation, who see it as a balance between funding crime-prevention efforts and toughening some sentencing guidelines.

“We did the best we could to put together a lot of ideas that together move the needle,” Zirkin said.

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