The bills are part of a larger effort during the legislature’s 90-day session to make the justice system fairer in a state where 70 percent of the prison population is made up of Black men — the highest percentage in the country.
“These are not just criminal justice issues, but they are racial justice issues,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “And it’s particularly important in Maryland where [the criminal justice system] is horribly unfair . . . where you have the worst racial disparities in the country.”
The bill eliminating life without parole for juveniles has been approved by the legislature and sent to Gov. Larry Hogan (R). He has not indicated whether he will sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.
D.C., Virginia and more than two dozen other states have passed similar legislation in recent years.
Maryland is one of just three states — along with California and Oklahoma — that give governors the power to reject recommendations made by the parole commission.
The bill taking that power away in Maryland has been approved by the House and Senate, but with slight differences in each chamber. Those differences must be reconciled before the legislature adjourns Monday for the measure to be sent to Hogan’s desk.
“I’m glad to see this day come,” said Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), who has pushed for a decade to give the parole commission final authority. “What we had in Maryland was governors making a decision based on their political ambitions and what could sell with the public. Politics just needs to be out of it.”
Hogan has denied 73 of 117 medical and nonmedical parole requests since taking office, a lower rejection rate than most recent past governors.
Former governor Parris Glendening (D), for example, said in 1995 that “life means life” and pledged that he would not grant parole to anyone serving a life sentence. For the next 20 years, Maryland’s governors barely budged from that stance.
But Glendening has since changed his mind. He said in an interview that his tough-on-crime position was “a serious mistake,” based on “the mood of the public at the moment,” and declared that decisions should be made by the parole commission, which is better equipped to review records and medical and psychological assessments and talk to victims and family members to determine whether a person is ready for release.
Former governor Martin O’Malley (D), who, like Glendening, never approved a nonmedical parole request while in office, is also backing the legislation. “If other states have determined that this . . . is the better way to go . . . I’m supportive of the change,” he said.
Hogan sent a letter earlier this year to the House Judiciary Committee opposing the bill and saying the existing system provides citizens with accountability.
“The Governor’s oversight duty in the current system makes policy on these sensitive issues responsive to the people,” he wrote. “One elected official is accountable to the voters for the parole of offenders who committed heinous murders and attempted murders.”
Former governor Robert L. Erhlich Jr. (R) also said he opposes the effort, describing the governor’s power to overrule the parole commission as “another road to accountability in our criminal justice system.”
The debate over both bills was intense, with supporters arguing that juveniles should not be sentenced to die in prison and opponents recalling heinous crimes in graphic terms and arguing that penalties should mirror the severity of those acts.
The bills were approved largely along party lines, most likely with enough votes to override a Hogan veto.
“The crimes that we’re talking about today are horrible, horrible crimes that these juveniles have committed,” Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said during a recent floor debate. “I’m not going to sugarcoat that.”
But, he said, the judicial system should be about “redemption” not “vengeance.”
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga said opposition to the bill was not about vengeance, but about justice and sending a message that “some actions have lifelong consequences.”
“This is a societal choice to draw a bright line between good and evil,” Sen. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) said during a recent floor debate.
Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) said it is unfair to put victims’ families in a position where they have to repeatedly go before a parole board to oppose a release. He added that it was a “grave miscalculation, a grave misjustice” to broadly decide that some offenders should not remain behind bars for life.
Del. Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s) said a driving force behind his decision to sponsor the juvenile parole bill was the statistic that 82 percent of juveniles charged as adults who received life and life-equivalent sentences in Maryland are Black.
The legislation would also allow a judge to impose a sentence less than the minimum required under the law.
“The fact of the matter is that these sentences are reserved almost exclusively for Black children,” Lewis said. “It is not morally defensible for children to die in jail for things that they did when their brains were not fully developed.”
The provision in the bill that allows juveniles who have served 20 years or more in prison to petition a judge for release would affect about 400 prisoners, the bill sponsors said.
“Redemption is possible,” said Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County), the lead Senate sponsor.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of state Sen. Delores G. Kelley. This version has been updated.